My Students Think You Can Get Facial Paralysis From The COVID Vaccine
“We should not allow the dissemination of a lifesaving vaccine to worsen health inequities.”
A parent of one of my students told me to go fuck myself.
She asked me about when we were going back to school so her son could get a better education for his IEP services in person. I mentioned that most teachers would go back after getting the COVID vaccine, and then we had a misunderstanding — she thought I wanted her son to get the vaccine. She told me there was no way in hell her son was going to get the COVID vaccine because he was going to get facial paralysis, or Bell’s palsy, from the vaccine. No one in her family was going to get vaccinated.
I wish I could say it’s the first time I heard fears of facial paralysis from the COVID vaccine, but it wasn’t. I show a little bit of CNN 10 Minute News to start most of my classes, and many of my students mentioned facial paralysis on one side of the face you can get from the COVID vaccine, and I was surprised to hear it, but we used it as an instructional moment. It was otherwise known as Bell’s palsy. I had my students look up “COVID and Bell’s palsy” and pull up the first search result — an article from Nina Shapiro at Forbes that documented FDA reviews of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
In the Moderna group, four out of 30,000 individuals reported facial paralysis, and four out of 43,000 individuals in the Pfizer group developed facial paralysis.
So there’s essentially a .001%, or 1/10,000 chance of getting facial paralysis. I did not sign up as an educator to be a pro-vaccine advocate. But I do see it as important for any educator to fight misinformation. In 2020, the chances of getting killed by COVID-19 were higher — about one in every 1,000 people was killed by the virus.
Bell’s palsy, according to John’s Hopkins Medicine, is an unexplained episode of facial muscle weakness or paralysis. It comes from damage to the 7th cranial nerve and usually occurs on one side of the face or head. The causes are not known — Bell’s palsy usually comes on suddenly, and leads to the drooping appearance of the facial muscles. Some see the facial droop as a sign of a stroke, and Shapiro notes that the facial droop that comes from a stroke looks similar.
But it isn’t more common from the COVID-19 vaccine.
“In both groups of vaccine trial participants, the rate (1 in 10,000) was commensurate with the incidence of sudden facial paralysis in the general population,” Shapiro says.
Snopes says there’s no evidence of the vaccine leading to the development of Bell’s palsy. But that did not stop many social media users on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms to point out the selective statistic that four people in the Pfizer group developed Bell’s palsy.
Some viral videos have also contributed to the misinformation. According to Dan Evon at Snopes, an unverified video of a woman claiming to be a nurse, Khalilah Mitchell, went viral on 4chan, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The woman, who said she was a registered nurse in Nashville, Tennessee, claims she developed Bell’s palsy a few days after receiving the COVID vaccine.
“Please, America, they do not care about us. Please do not take this vaccination,” she says in the video.
The Tennessee Department of Health said they had no record of that nurse in their health professional licensure system, but the damage was done. Mitchell sobs in a very emotional video, and says she wouldn’t recommend anyone get the vaccine, even her worst enemy. One posting of the video was viewed 50,000 times on Twitter. One iteration of the video on YouTube has over 30,000 views and multiple commenters posting against the vaccine.
“It sparked outsized fear of a real but minimal risk,” Jeffrey Kluger at TIME Magazine said of the video.
The video has been debunked, but as of December, 40% of Americans still say they will definitely not or probably not get the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them, according to the Pew Research Center poll. A Gallup poll in the same time period put the number at 37%.
There are multiple conspiracy theories against the COVID vaccine, in addition to the usual refusals from the anti-vax community. Kluger states that one theory is that COVID is caused by 5G cell towers, and another claims it’s a plot by Elon Musk or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to inject microchips into Americans. Even Bill Gates himself acknowledged the extent of the misinformation:
“It doesn’t help that there are false conspiracy theories about vaccines, including some that involve Melinda and me.”
Most people against the vaccine are simply rational people who believe the vaccine development was rushed, or who don’t want to be first in line to get it. And some medical professionals defend the apprehension of a large portion of our population in getting the vaccine. Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, validated the skepticism. And that validation is particularly important since Offit is a supporter of universal vaccination and a high-profile enemy of the anti-vax community.
“The average length of time it takes to make a vaccine is 15 to 20 years…This vaccine was made in a year,” Offit says.
But the vaccine wasn’t actually as rushed as they seem. The use of mRNA to prompt the body to make the coronavirus spike protein has been in development for over a decade, according to Dr. Richard Pan. It is not a novel method of making a vaccine, according to Kluger. Pan tries to reassure people who doubt the vaccine that there are many people who got it before them and does not advocate for mandates until there are enough vaccine doses for everyone.
Of course, there are other factors that lead to distrust of the vaccine, particularly along demographic and ideological lines. A Gallup poll found that 75% of Democrats were willing to get the vaccine in November, while 50% of Republicans were willing to get the vaccine. Older people over 65 are also more likely to be willing to get the vaccine than people under 30.
The biggest difference comes along racial lines. A December Pew Research Center poll found that 60% of Americans said they would definitely or probably get the vaccine, with 83% of “English-speaking Asian Americans” saying they would definitely or probably get vaccinated, white respondents being 63% likely, and Latinx respondents being 61% likely. But 42% of African Americans respondents said they would be likely to get the vaccine.
“Black Americans continue to stand out as less inclined to get vaccinated than other racial and ethnic groups,” Cary Funk and Alec Tyson said at the Pew Research Center.
I have never taught a non-Black student, and I didn’t know mistrust of the vaccine due to the remote possibility of Bell’s palsy came from not only my students, but some parents as well. Kluger notes that the medical disenfranchisement of the Black community goes a long way. There were the gynecological experiments J. Marion Sims conducted on enslaved women, as well as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments that involved infecting Black men with syphilis and observing the history of untreated syphilis.
Although these concerns are valid, especially for people in the Black community, normalizing mistrust of the vaccine due to conspiracy theories should not happen. It’s up to social media companies to regulate misinformation, and for journalists not to give equal time to rumors or conspiracy theories. According to Dr. Ala Stanford, the founder of the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, a large part of the mistrust comes from mistrust of the system as a whole, which includes the vaccines.
“The main fear I hear [about vaccines] is that someone is injecting coronavirus into my body…And I answer in as detailed a way as I can about the mRNA and the protein and how it looks like coronavirus but it’s not,” Stanford said.
I never saw it as my job to increase trust in a vaccine. After all, children under 16 are not even approved to get the vaccine yet because children’s immune systems are very different from adults’, and more research is needed on vaccines for children at younger ages.
Maybe time is the most important factor for increased trust in the vaccine. After the first wave of people gets the vaccine without issue, the trust will naturally rise. However, Black health professionals and community health groups all over America have been working to increase trust in the vaccine. Some health professionals, according to Bertha Coombs at CNBC, have been pushing government officials to prioritize access to the vaccine for communities of color with a higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions.
“We should not allow the dissemination of a lifesaving vaccine to worsen health inequities. In fact, it should help to narrow them,” said Dr. Reed Tuckson, the co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID.