This post is a major departure for me. I religiously try to avoid controversial subjects because I want to convey my commitment to a positive, forward-looking attitude toward life.
However, the Delta variant of the current Covid-19 pandemic is an existential threat to my life as a 77-year-old cancer survivor, my family whom I dearly love, my country that is already so polarized by politics and otherism, and, indeed, the entire world. Delta simply cannot be dismissed or ignored.
93 million Americans eligible for the vaccine are not vaccinated. Yet 45% of unvaccinated Americans say they will definitely not get the vaccine! 64% of unvaccinated Americans told pollsters that they had little to no confidence that the vaccines are effective against the COVID-19 variants (Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey).
These are frightening numbers. The stakes couldn’t be higher. And here comes back-to-school…
The science couldn’t be more clear. Covid-19 vaccines WORK – consistently and safely. Efficacy rates for preventing the disease, including the Delta variant, are universally high. But, even more importantly, the vaccines’ proven efficacy in preventing hospitalizations and death exceeds 95%, including the Delta variant.
The unprecedented level of transmissibility of the Delta variant is threat enough. But the staggering potential of vaccine-resistant mutations, if the amount of virus in the world and number of unvaccinated hosts are not curtailed, is frightening.
Our only way out…
Vaccination levels approaching 85-90% are our ONLY scientific way out to stop the transmission chain – the same way other viral scourges were eradicated – like polio, smallpox, tetanus, hepatitis A & B, influenza, rubella, measles, whooping cough, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria and others. Universal vaccination against deadly viral scourges is not new. It’s been our go-to proven solution for more than a century. Why is Covid-19 different?
At the time of writing this post, 150 million+ Americans, including children, are not vaccinated against Covid-19. And CDC guidelines say I should go back to wearing a mask indoors – even though I am fully vaccinated. For those of us who wear glasses, going back to seeing the world through fogged-up glasses sucks.
And what sucks even more is knowing that, if everyone just got vaccinated, masks wouldn’t be needed… and life’s normality would once again feel… normal.
But is normality an achievable dream?
Alas we’re so far from our nostalgic vision of life in America just 18 months ago, it’s difficult not to feel a gnawing anxiety that normality may be an unachievable dream in today’s crazy patchwork of apathy, vaccine hesitancy and vaccine hostility.
So I decided that I would take a look at the specific reasons quoted by those who resist or defy vaccination… and compare those reasons with relevant science and data. And, of course, the most relevant companion question is, “Does the science and data matter?”
Vaccine hesitancy – America’s Top 10 reasons given for not getting vaccinated
1 “I could get Covid-19 from the vaccine itself.”
That one is physically impossible because there is not a single piece of coronavirus in the vaccine.
2 “The vaccine can cause infertility.”
This myth arises from the fact that the spike protein it helps create shares some amino acids with synectin, a protein found in the placenta. But, according to the CDC, there is currently no evidence that ANY vaccines, including Covid-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems.
In fact, the benefits of getting vaccinated if you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant far outweigh the risks, because Covid-19 vaccines provide protection for pregnant and lactating women – and their newborns – according to a study at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard.
3 “Covid-19 vaccines have harmful side effects.”
We’re now about 16 months since the beginning of trials and about 7 months since we started public vaccinations – about 170 million vaccinations – without any significant scientific evidence of serious side effects, Any adverse side effects from vaccines almost always show up within the first 2 weeks after vaccination, and certainly by the first 2 months – according to Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School Of Public Health.
“The most serious vaccine side effects in history have all been caught within six weeks,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and a member of the FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.
So serious side effects, other than short-term mild flu symptoms and discomfort, are rare (For example, blood clots were found in only 28 of 8.7 million people who got the Johnson & Johnson shot at the time of reporting, and they haven’t been found in anyone who got the Moderna or Pfizer shots – NBC News May 12, 2021).
4 “Covid-19 vaccines can change my DNA.”
This is the belief that messenger RNA (mRNA) in Covid-19 vaccines can somehow rewrite your personal DNA. “The chance of mRNA getting into a cell nucleus to alter DNA is not small. It’s zero. It’s not possible. You have as much chance of having your DNA being altered as getting these vaccines and turning into Spider-Man” – Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia.
5 “My dad died right after getting a Covid-19 shot.”
Anecdotal “cause-and-effect” incidents tie a person’s untimely death or serious health problem to the fact that they recently got a Covid-19 shot. A good friend recently told me that she feared getting vaccinated, in part, because a relative had a heart attack right after her vaccination – and they share genes.
Scientists have pursued cause-and-effect connections aggressively since trials began for the vaccines – that’s one of the core evaluation objectives of the trials and early patient experiences after vaccinations begin. Yet, despite this intense focus on searching out potential cause-and-effect alarms, scientists have not been able to establish any serious cause-and-effect linkage.
6 “I don’t trust the CDC or government in general.”
Distrust of government and its leaders, political parties and institutions is so prevalent today.
African-Americans recall government experiments in the last century. So many Americans come to this pandemic with an ingrained “government isn’t working” perception in so many areas of daily life.
Social media provides a forum for voicing that distrust at unprecedented levels. And it doesn’t help that messages from the CDC have changed frequently (so has the science as the disease and the data it produces continually evolve).
Combining anti-authority with today’s polarized politics is hardening resistance and is building a seemingly impenetrable wall against the science. “Anything that comes from the Biden administration will be rejected out of hand, regardless of what the message is,” said Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and a member of Biden’s coronavirus transition task force – quoted in The Washington Post July 15, 2021.
7 “Vaccine approval was too fast – it’s only an Emergency Use Authorization.”
Calling the government development effort “Operation Warp Speed” didn’t help. But according to Dr Paul Offit, quoted above, the level of scrutiny is virtually the same. The only real difference between Emergency Use Authorization and full FDA approval is the time period for followups – usually 1 to 2 years.
But with hundreds of thousands of people dying, the decision to authorize made sense. And the followup efficacy data since authorization has provided no signal that authorization was not warranted. In addition, at this writing, full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine is only weeks away with Moderna not far behind.
8 “Covid-19 isn’t really a serious threat.”
Some are young people with invincible syndrome (Too many young, healthy people are increasingly being infected with the Delta variant and experiencing serious issues. Many young people have turned into Covid-19 "long-haulers," suffering chronic fatigue, shortness of breath and brain fog months after infection).
Some got Covid and recovered thinking the antibodies will protect them (a CDC study found Covid-19 survivors who never got vaccinated had a much higher risk of reinfection than those who were fully vaccinated).
Some listened to leaders who for so long downplayed Covid risks. Some are just tired of the hype and want to be left alone.
Whatever the reason, ignoring Covid-19 threats in the face of the Delta variant is dangerous – especially as the age of patients gets younger and younger.
9 The Covid-19 variants keep changing. I’ll wait.”
Some people look at the continual Covid-19 mutations and say, “Why should I get vaccinated now? I’ll wait for the next variant so I don’t have to be vaccinated again for another variant.”
Waiting is dangerous. The Delta variant is many times more transmissible than previous variants, but current vaccines work against Delta even though the vaccines were not developed for Delta. And there is a reasonably good chance future variants will not break through current vaccines.
Plus those that are already vaccinated will still have protection against all previous variants, and may only need a booster shot customized to any new more dangerous variant. There is no reason to wait.
10 “I trust my faith to protect me.”
Among US religious groups, white evangelical Protestants are most likely to refuse to get vaccinated (26%), and an additional 28% are hesitant," per a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core.
Respectful of individual religious views, I believe religion and science must coexist here – celebrating the remarkable human brain’s ability to think and reason, as well as its ability to embrace Divine protection and blessing.
The stakes are too high for anything less than all of us working together to defeat this viral scourge before it overwhelms us.
Vaccine hesitancy is also not just about the first shots.
Here’s what one 67-year-old Texas woman recently said… “Why do we need a booster if it worked? So you kind of question what’s going on… I will not get the booster. I’m done.”
We have a long way to go to see even close to a universally shared acceptance of science’s advice on dealing with this newest viral scourge. And we will all pay the price.
Until we can approach these inevitable viral scourges with the same confidence in science and collective will to fight them together – as we did with polio, smallpox, hepatitis, etc. – we will wallow in anxiety and blame. And we will find ourselves living a quality of life far from the ageless, aspiring, joyous life that I want for my family and yours.
What is the psychology of vaccine hesitancy? Watch this TED Talk.