An influencer who pushed anti-vaccine messages is now publicly promoting her COVID-19 vaccination to make up for the misinformation she spread during her movement. Heather Simpson, a freelance writer and activist, joins CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss why she decided to get the vaccine.
LANA ZAK: Demand for coronavirus vaccines is falling here in the United States. Now President Biden's chief medical advisor says people need what he calls trusted messengers to convince them to get the shots. So far, a little bit more than a third of the US population has now been fully vaccinated. But several states are turning down vaccine doses allocated by the federal government, because the shots are going to waste. Dr. Anthony Fauci says the administration is working to combat vaccine hesitancy, especially in southern states.
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: You've got to get trusted messengers out there, getting people to understand why it's important to get vaccinated for themselves, their family, and the community. And different types of people in different phases in life have different trusted messengers. It could be sports figures. It could be entertainment figures, it could be clergy or it could be your family doctor. That's the first thing-- trusted messengers.
LANA ZAK: For more, I want to bring in Heather Simpson, a freelance writer and an activist who was at one point, opposed to vaccines herself. Heather, thanks for being here and happy Mother's Day to you. You were an anti-vaccine influencer until fairly recently. You denied the safety and necessity of childhood vaccines. What changed?
HEATHER SIMPSON: Basically I had friends that poured into me and really listened to my fears and took the time to explain why my fears were ridiculous. And then I started reading evidence-based science-- books by Dr. Paul Offit have helped me a ton, and just ignoring all the anti-vaccine propaganda on Facebook, and just focusing on the science. I found scientific facts that I cannot get around, and I held on to those facts when I went to get my COVID vaccine and when I went to get my daughter vaccinated.
LANA ZAK: Heather, part of what I think resonates about your story is that it came from a good place. You were trying to do the best thing for your children. Talk to us a little bit about what got you into the anti-vaccine movement in the first place.
HEATHER SIMPSON: My husband and I were trying for a baby. We started thinking about vaccines, and so around that time, we saw an advertisement for this nine hour docuseries that basically showed all these doctors blaming vaccines on everything under the sun. And so by the time we watched all nine hours, we were terrified. I thought if I injected my baby with a vaccine, she wouldn't wake up the next morning. I was traumatized. I was not going to vaccinate after that.
LANA ZAK: And do you now, now that you have, as you say, really evaluated the scientific research and have sorted through this and are now firmly a supporter of vaccines, do you worry that the anti-vaccine misinformation that you previously promoted might hurt other children? And what needs to be done to address anti vaccine content that misinforms well-intentioned parents?
HEATHER SIMPSON: I do worry that what I posted could harm people, and that is why I am pushing for scientific facts to be promoted on Facebook and pushing content that promotes vaccination for parents in hopes that I can undo some of the damage that I did. I think there needs to be facts that are out there on Facebook and easily accessible on the internet that parents, no matter the fear that they might feel, they can't get around those facts. Like for example, they will say that vaccine aluminum is in your brain and that there's all these studies. But when you actually read the studies, that's environmental aluminum. That's not actual vaccine aluminum. And they'll say, well, it crosses the blood-brain barrier. Well, in reality, you would have to have 3,600 vaccines injected into your baby's neck to even have a chance of crossing the blood-brain barrier. And when you're armed with those facts, facts don't care about those feelings that you're scared of and you can hold onto those. That would just do so much good in fighting all this fear and misinformation.
LANA ZAK: Heather, I think part of the difficulty though, is that you have been able to sort out in your process, scientific facts from things that are labeled as facts, that are actually untrue, but are masquerading as facts. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, as you heard me reference, says people need more trusted messengers in their communities who can convince them to get vaccinated. Have you been able to convince other anti-vaxxers to get a coronavirus vaccine? And how do you approach that question of what are the facts-- the facts that are real, scientific, peer reviewed, and what are the things that are masquerading as facts?
HEATHER SIMPSON: I run a page with my friend called Back to the Facts, and because of that page, we have been able to convince parents to start vaccinating their children or to get the COVID vaccine. I think as far as the misinformation that is going around on Facebook, I think we all need to just be on guard and be promoting correct material like the big infertility rumor surrounding the COVID vaccine is something that I've seen rampant on Facebook. And that to me, is one of the biggest issues that people are not getting the COVID vaccine over. And so all of us that are pro-vaccine I feel, need to make it a group effort to attack this misinformation.
LANA ZAK: What are your suggestions for people who want to try and reach family or friends who are hesitant about getting vaccinated because of these fears?
HEATHER SIMPSON: So I was talking to somebody about this this week. There's different levels of anti-vaxxers. There's vaccine hesitant that might have vaccinated their children, but they may not want to get the COVID vaccine. And then there's scared, and then there's ex-vaxxers, where something happened to their child and they don't know what else to believe but the vaccine. Doctors sometimes brush them off, and if the doctors could take the time to say, hey, I hear you, and let's get to the bottom of this. Let's figure out what's going on. That would help. And then you have the conspiracy theorists, and then what next? I call them the lizard people, that believe that humans are lizards, and they are just a lost cause.
So if you have a family member that's in the vaccine hesitant or the scared or the ex-vaxxer, you can come at them with these facts that they can't get around and that is the only way to do it. And that's really the only thing that really won me over is those facts. I could not get around. I could cry about it. I could feel terrified, but I could not get around the scientific facts. And they're going to have a hard time getting around them, too.
LANA ZAK: Heather Simpson, thank you for joining us.
HEATHER SIMPSON: Thank you.