Wednesday, December 16, 2020

COVID vaccines are a gift -- if we accept them -- Dec. 17, 2020 column

By MARSHA MERCER

This Christmas, the gifts of Three Wise Men -- make that three pharmaceutical companies -- are COVID-19 vaccines.

The Pfizer vaccine is in distribution, Moderna’s is about to be authorized, and AstraZeneca’s is likely not far behind.

In 2020, these treasures are more valuable than gold, frankincense and myrrh. If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that safety and good health are of incalculable worth.

Seeing the first American healthcare workers baring their upper arms to get the shots boosted everyone’s morale. But it’s estimated 60% to 80% of Americans will need to be immune to the devastating virus, either through infection or vaccination, to achieve herd immunity and begin to resume normal life. That will take months.

The arrival of the miracle vaccines also raises a question: Will people get them?

Polls and anecdotal reports indicate a wide swath of the population, and Black people especially, may be wary. Only 17% or Blacks said they’d definitely get a COVID vaccine, compared with 37% of whites and Hispanics, a Kaiser Family Foundation Poll in October reported.

That was before the vaccines were a reality and before people began seeing their peers gladly roll up their sleeves.

Sandra Lindsay, 52, an intensive care nurse in Queens, New York, who is Black, received the Pfizer vaccine Monday, one of the first people in the United States to do so.

Her goal wasn’t to be first, she told The New York Times, “but to inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines.”

Generations of Black Americans have grown up distrusting the federal government’s medical programs since the 1932 Tuskegee study in which Black men who had syphilis were left untreated so doctors could study the effects.

Many Americans are inoculation phobic. Most adults typically don’t even get a flu vaccine.

In addition, since it usually takes years to develop a vaccine, the speed at which the COVID vaccines arrived makes even some medical personnel leery of taking the first shots, although clinical trials show the vaccines are remarkably effective and safe.

In its first analysis of the Pfizer vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration found it worked well no matter the volunteer’s age, race or weight. It was 95% effective after two shots three to four weeks apart. Side effects are generally mild, although some experts suggest people might want to take the day off after the second dose in case it brings fatigue, chills or fever.

There’s much we don’t yet know. How well will the vaccine work on children and pregnant women? How long will immunity last? And, while the vaccine protects vaccinated persons from the disease, can the vaccinated still spread the virus through droplets in sneezes and coughs?

The recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is for healthcare workers and long-term care residents to be the highest priority for shots. The Virginia Health Department adopted the recommendation.  

The advisory committee seems likely to recommend that other essential workers be next, followed by those over 65 and those younger who have health conditions that put them at high risk – a plan Virginia also has adopted.

States vary in their priorities. A few states have prioritized law enforcement, prisoners and the homeless in the first group, a review of state policies by the Kaiser Family Foundation found.

The supply of vaccines is limited at present but will increase. By next spring or summer, the general population in Virginia and elsewhere will be eligible to be jabbed.

But will they? A blizzard of misinformation is coming from sources many consider reputable – political figures, radio talkers, posters on social media. By now, no one should believe COVID-19 is a hoax. Not when more than 300,000 in the United States have died of the disease this year and millions more face long-term symptoms.

That’s why everyone must mask up and practice good hygiene and social distancing well into 2021. By next Christmas, with luck and perseverance, we can celebrate the end of the pandemic.

The vaccines are a gift, but first we must accept them.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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