After the COVID-19 vaccines started becoming available to members of the public, a significant portion of the population eagerly signed up to receive their shot with hopes of reunification with loved ones and a return to their favorite places.

Those people who were champing at the bit for their vaccine appointments have now largely been vaccinated, said Haley Bruhn, the immunization program manager for Grand Forks Public Health. Public health workers are now tasked with reaching more "passive" members of the public, who might not have gone out of their way to receive a vaccine, but who might sign up for one at a location that's convenient to them with the strong recommendation of a trusted health care provider.

Public health workers generally agree that reaching these groups is likely the surest way out of the pandemic. To do this, they have reiterated the same message as frequently as possible: the vaccines are safe and effective, and once fully vaccinated, you may begin to safely return to some normal activities.

As local public health workers' focus has shifted to reaching this population, much of their work has included debunking misinformation regarding the safety of the vaccines, Bruhn said.

"It’s hard to measure the impact of vaccine misinformation on people’s decision making," she said. "We do know that a strong provider recommendation and being able to answer questions on specific concerns is a provider strategy to increase vaccination uptake. Most of the time, people just want more information from a trusted professional."

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As of Thursday, May 6, 37.9% of Grand Forks County has been fully vaccinated, and another 5% are partially vaccinated. Another 17.5% of the county's population must be vaccinated in order to reach presumptive herd immunity -- that's roughly 12,130 Grand Forks County residents, according to Grand Forks Public Health.

Bruhn said the department is aware of misinformation circulating locally that incorrectly claims the vaccines are unsafe. She listed several false claims that have circulated about the vaccines -- that they contain microchips or tracking devices, that they are unsafe due to rushed production, or that adverse effects have been underreported -- but pointed to the fact that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was temporarily pulled from clinics immediately after a link to blood clots was discovered, despite the fact that the risk of clotting was relatively very low. She said she hopes that will signal to people how seriously medical professionals are taking vaccine safety.

For those doing their own research on vaccine safety, Bruhn urged them to look for credible from information that is agreed upon by multiple reliable sources -- she suggested the World Health Organization, the CDC, and the North Dakota Department of Health, as well as any health care provider who has established expertise in the field of vaccinations, infectious diseases or a related field.

"We continue to advise people to weight out if the information they are receiving is credible or not," she said. "Asking questions such as, 'Who is providing this information?' 'What is the motivation, or core values of the person or organization?' 'What experience do they have that relates to the topic, and what is their educational background?'”

And for those who are concerned that loved ones are hesitant to get the vaccine, Bruhn suggested starting by asking them what their reasons for getting the vaccine would be, and listening to their specific concerns.

"When we approach people in this way, they typically will share that overall, they feel it provides protection for someone else (such as vulnerable or elderly family or friends), but that they just don't know if it's necessarily needed for them, or they cite safety concerns," Bruhn said. "This gives us a place of confidence to work from, and it allows us to hear their specific concerns or hesitation so that we can provide them with information."

Information about local walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinics, including dates, times, type of vaccine available and information about each type of vaccine can be found at www.grandforksgov.com/vaccine. Grand Forks Public Health staff are available at all clinics to answer any questions.