Military Immunizer Combats Misinformation on U.S. Air Force Base

Medical technician Nicholas Golden, TSgt USAF, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a colleague at Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana.

Medical technician Nicholas Golden, TSgt USAF, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a colleague at Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Golden was brought onto active duty from the U.S. Air Force Reserve. His job was to educate civilian and military personnel at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana, about the rapidly spreading virus and to ensure all personnel were vaccinated in accordance with Department of Defense guidance.

The role required Golden to attend multiple teleconferences per week with military and public health leaders and, eventually, with representatives from the COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna.

Once COVID-19 vaccines became available, Golden, an aerospace medical technician, was named vaccine coordinator and charged with ensuring his colleagues received their vaccination. However, vaccination was optional at first, and Golden was met with some resistance and misinformation.

“We had someone who was very wary of getting [a COVID-19 vaccine] because he heard the rumors that it could cause infertility,” Golden said. “No matter how false, hearing that the vaccine can cause infertility can sound some alarms.”

Vaccine misinformation was addressed frequently in the routine teleconferences that Golden attended. Participants on the call received material to share with their patient populations to counter misinformation, including scientific research documenting that no claims about infertility had been substantiated. Golden shared this information with the concerned individual.

“We had a 20-minute talk about how there was not a single case that could corroborate the infertility claims—not only in relation to the COVID vaccine but to any vaccine,” Golden said. From there, Golden shared COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Ultimately, the individual decided to receive the vaccine.

Over the next year, Golden spent countless hours discussing vaccine modality, administration, misinformation, and medical necessity with colleagues and other patients. He personally administered more than 1,600 doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Today, 99% of Grissom personnel are vaccinated. Many continue to return to Golden for boosters.

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While Golden is no longer combating vaccine misinformation on a daily basis, his experiences from the early days of the pandemic and vaccine rollout have taught him lessons he believes could serve pharmacists and other health professionals in future public health emergencies.

Golden recommends setting realistic expectations. “Two weeks to flatten the curve was not a reasonable expectation.”

Immunizers should set realistic expectations for patients about vaccines for COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable illnesses, says Golden. To do this, they should be transparent and continually share the most current information about what COVID-19 vaccines can do. The vaccines are designed to counter COVID-19, but nothing is 100% effective. Despite that, he explained that if vaccines don’t completely prevent disease, they are effective at protecting people from getting seriously ill, and they lower the risk of the disease spreading to others.

Additionally, Golden recommends that when you don’t know an answer, don’t be afraid to say so. Clinicians and public health professionals should get comfortable saying when they don’t know an answer. “Not saying anything at all is what breeds theories and misinformation and the fear that something is being hidden from them. Transparency is our biggest ally.”

Resources to Know What Drives Vaccine Confidence and Answer Common Questions about COVID-19 vaccines are available at APhA’s Vaccine Confident microsite.