We are in some dark days of a pandemic, the likes of which we have not seen in more than a century in our country. Thousands of people are dying daily, with the toll exceeding major conflicts such as World War I. There are profound impacts on all levels of society. The devastation is real.
The science to get us through is real too.
Some have concerns about the rapid development and deployment of the mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer to provide protective immunity against COVID-19. As an infectious-disease specialist at Jefferson Health, I was privileged to be among the first in Philadelphia to receive the vaccine this week since I not only work on Jefferson’s response to COVID-19 but also provide direct care for these patients. Around the region, thousands of other medical professionals are receiving the vaccine too. We should view this as a moment of relief, not fear.
While these vaccines have the potential for long-term side effects, we must weigh the toll that COVID-19 infection continues to take on our friends and family against the possible potential for unforeseen future effects of the vaccine.
To me, there is no contest. Vaccination — and the science behind it — wins. That’s why, although Jefferson is allowing employees to make their own decisions on whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine, I eagerly rolled up my sleeve. I am heartened that 73% of 10,000 of my Jefferson colleagues who responded to a recent survey about the vaccine said they are likely or very likely to receive it as well.
Historically, the vast majority of vaccine side effects occur within the first six weeks of vaccination. The data we have seen so far suggest that the mRNA vaccines are 95% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection with no serious side effects in tens of thousands of patients, even as we carefully monitor for side effects as the vaccines roll out.
So far, the companies report minor pain and swelling at the injection site, muscle and joint aches, and fatigue over the first few days after vaccination. There have been a few reports of allergic reactions, but we are prepared to respond to these events with this and all other vaccines. This is tremendous news.
As a comparison, at Jefferson, we mandate the influenza vaccination for our clinical employees. While influenza vaccines are overall quite safe, they can cause serious adverse reactions on rare occasions and are, on average, only 40% to 60% effective.
A vaccinated health-care workforce can enhance the health, safety, and well-being of patient-facing staff across the country who have been fighting the effects of this virus every day for more than nine months. Vaccinated care staff will also lower the risk of passing on infection to vulnerable patients, especially in congregate-care settings, where nearly 40% of COVID-19 deaths have occurred nationwide.
Beyond the health-care workforce, I hope that when it is available, everyone who is able to be vaccinated against COVID-19 makes the decision to choose science over fear. When I received my vaccine, it felt like the beginning of the end for COVID-19. It was a day of relief and optimism. I hope there are many more days like it ahead.
Many people will base their vaccination decisions on their own personal risk of developing COVID-19, and the risks of people whom they encounter regularly — whether patients, loved ones, or community members. I believe the best way to bring this pandemic to an end is through vaccination.
I rolled up my sleeve. Will you?
John J. Zurlo, M.D., is distinguished professor and division director of infectious disease at Jefferson Health.