Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Our collective nightmare of suffering through the largest public health crisis in a century, wherein more than 300,000 Americans have died, may be coming to an end. Pfizer’s vaccine recently received emergency authorization from the FDA. Several other pharma companies are not far behind. This is cause for relief and jubilation; the end of this pandemic seems finally within reach.
But sadly, I know that many Americans will decide not to get vaccinated. While it is true that a few will have genuine medical or other well-founded reasons not to, the vast majority of anti-vaxxers will make their choice based on misinformation, unfounded biases, or mistrust of the system. Unfortunately, such anti-science, cultish values have grown in a morass of rampant lies and culture wars. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert said recently that he was stunned as to how millions of Americans still believe COVID is a hoax and that vaccines are not useful. A Gallup poll in mid-November reported that only 58% of Americans would be willing to take such a vaccine. A recent report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) estimated that the number of people following anti-vaxxers on social media went up by 7.7 million since 2019 and that such platforms are making up to $1 billion a year in targeted advertising revenue. Right-wing extremist groups have concocted and spread outlandish conspiracy theories about vaccines being akin to slavery, or that the “deep state” will hijack the recipient’s DNA, knowing that if they sow doubt, there will be gullible people who may fall into their trap. The WHO lists vaccine hesitancy among its top ten global health threats.
COVID has been especially lethal for elderly people, but the good news is that vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are reported to be 90% plus effective not just in younger people but in individuals older than 65 years also. Nursing home residents, the elderly, and healthcare workers are amongst the first ones who began receiving these vaccines in mid-December.
Every American who is eligible to receive the vaccine should get vaccinated when they become more generally available in the spring after receiving full FDA approval – not just to protect themselves, but also to protect those around them. For every infection prevented, a community sees five to ten fewer new cases. Herd immunity is achieved when the majority of individuals become immune so that susceptible hosts are hard to find and thus viral transmission abates naturally. Contrarily, when many people choose not to get vaccinated, herd immunity becomes difficult to establish and the vulnerable, higher-risk people in society pay the price. Thus, to crush the pandemic, this endeavor requires the buy-in of all Americans. It requires a team spirit – one for all, all for one. For those who may prioritize their interests over societal benefits, they would do well by viewing the economic benefits when the pandemic lets up. Their freedom to travel, eat at restaurants, and congregate again, is all intertwined with what is best for all – overcoming this pandemic quickly and successfully.
Of course, there should be understandable trepidation about the speed of discovery of these vaccines and their safety. Yes, the timeline of vaccine development has been at phenomenal speed, but that is because of the intense focus of governments and scientists in combating this pandemic. It is also a testament to the scientific advances that have occurred over the past several decades that have allowed us to perform research and manufacture successful vaccines faster than ever before.
The American public should rest assured that the approval process for vaccines in the U.S. is backed by a transparent, independent, and exhaustive deep-dive into the safety and efficacy by an independent board of career scientists and experts who are beholden to no one and are free of political influences. Vaccine manufacturers and the FDA had publicly pledged in the fall that they will not cut corners or compromise on the scientific rigor of vaccine trials. All data is critically evaluated, side effects are carefully analyzed, and efficacy in various groups of individuals is confirmed before the FDA approves such vaccines for the general public. Vaccination helped eradicate previous similar scourges that marred American life in the mid-twentieth century, such as measles and polio and the unnecessary childhood deaths and disability that these diseases wrought.
All of us owe some allegiance and civic responsibility to the society we live in. The citizen-societal relationship is necessarily a two-way street. When called upon to bolster the health of our communities and fight back this virus, we should all do our part by getting vaccinated. This will protect our nation’s health and bring back normalcy to our lives.
Dinesh Kalra, MD, is an Associate Professor and an attending consultant at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, IL, with expertise in COVID-19 vaccines and COVID-related heart disease. He is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.