Our nation is just beginning the slow but exciting process of rolling out vaccines to protect us from a deadly pandemic. The introduction of these vaccines will grow to protect our overwhelmed hospitals and gradually lead us to a return to relative normalcy.
Having a vaccination with a 95% effective rate for healthy people is remarkable. But that number doesn’t account for the vast number of people who either can’t get the vaccine for medical reasons (severely immunocompromised, allergic reactions, undergoing certain cancer treatments) or can’t expect significant protection from the vaccine (people who have various immune deficiencies).
I have primary immunodeficiency, which means that not only am I more susceptible to the effects of certain viruses, my body does not have a robust response to most vaccines. Simply put: Just because I get the vaccine doesn’t mean I can’t still get COVID-19. In fact, it may not protect me very much at all.
That’s why it’s so important to me and my family for other people to trust the vaccine. I can’t just go back to normal once I get the vaccine — I have to wait for herd immunity. And I know that I am not alone.
We don’t yet know if a vaccinated individual can still spread COVID. If they can, the rampant asymptomatic spread will be particularly problematic for folks like me until it is essentially eradicated. If it turns out that they can’t, it’s all the more reason to vaccinate as soon as possible to protect everyone around you. You may not even realize that you personally love and care about someone who won’t respond well to the vaccine. An estimated 70%-90% of people with primary immunodeficiencies are still undiagnosed worldwide.
I realize that in a nation that values the personal freedom to not wear a piece of cloth over their faces to protect the community, it’s going to be a hard sell for skeptics to get the vaccine for the sake of others.
It’s a pipe dream to expect a unified vaccine acceptance in a country at the peak of polarization. Some people don’t want to take the vaccine because they think it was “rushed under the Trump administration,” while others won’t take it because Donald Trump so deeply minimized the impact of the virus. And some people won’t even take a Tylenol for a headache.
I understand that it’s hard to believe that scientists and pharmaceutical companies didn’t “cut corners” in the creation of this vaccine. But the reality is they didn’t. There are many valid reasons it was developed so quickly. Scientists have been working on both mRNA vaccine technology and vaccines for other coronaviruses for years — there was a fortunate abundance of preparation. There was also an unprecedented level of interest in study participation, the rapid spread of COVID making it easy to determine the outcomes, and an increased interest in financial and government participation. There was no skipping of safety checks.
Of course, there is reasonable hesitation and skepticism in Black communities around vaccine safety, due to the health-care system being historically untrustworthy to African Americans. It is not my place to discount their fears. I am hopeful public health leaders will do the work to earn the trust of a community that is also disproportionately harmed by this disease.
Due to the nature of the virus and the length it will take to roll out vaccinations for everyone (children may not be approved for many months), mask-wearing and social distancing will and should be the norm for a while. But for every person who understands that the risks associated with the vaccine (mild side effects by all scientific accounts) massively outweigh the short- and long-term risks of COVID-19, the safer it becomes to return to life the way it was meant to be lived — for everyone.
Paige Wolf is a writer, publicist, and advocate in Philadelphia.