Last week it suddenly occurred to me that I was coming up on a year in “lockdown.” And yes, I’m incredibly blessed — I have a home I love, I can take a walk on the beach, I can chat with my wonderful neighbors at the mailbox, I can pay my bills, I’m healthy.
And as I thought about this, I realized that while my fears of illness and death had somewhat abated, my fear that life had irrevocably changed had grown. I was afraid that we were never going to go back to having gatherings and hugs — remember hugs? — and work and travel and concerts and fun.
And I got pretty discouraged and cranky and low. Ask my husband — he’ll attest to it.
And then came Moderna. Last week my husband and I signed up at a pharmacy about an hour away with no problem and were able to get the first round of the vaccine within two days. And let me tell you, it was a passport to hope.
Why did I jump on the bandwagon as soon as the vaccine was available?
I took my undergrad degree in chemistry so I’m a science fan and I took pains to research the development of the vaccine and the approval process. And yes, it was fast. But this is because the new MRNA vaccines were built on a model that had already been thoroughly vetted and tested.
It’s as if a trusted brand of car was suddenly equipped with a sunroof. It didn’t take long to develop and it could be rapidly tested. So the rapid timeframe didn’t worry me.
And yes, there are new variants and the vaccine will probably require boosters or even yearly updating. And it’s inevitably imperfect. But remember, over half a million people have died from the coronavirus in this country and many are still suffering lingering effects. So to me, the vaccine was a big win and an obvious solution.
But not everybody agrees.
In fact a friend of mine just insisted that she would never take the vaccine. She claims that corona is just like the flu, that if you’re healthy you won’t get it, that over 650 people have died from the vaccine and that she didn’t believe the “mainstream media” when it told her this wasn’t true. And that nobody better try and “make her” take the vaccine.
Let’s unpack this, shall we?
First, that corona is just like the flu. Yes, they are both respiratory diseases. But — and this is key — Johns Hopkins has found that corona is up to ten times as virulent as the flu. In other words, you are 10 times as likely to die from a bad case of the coronavirus as you are from a bad case of the flu.
And I get vaccinated for the flu every year. I can’t afford three weeks on the couch in February, thank you very much. And I love my husband too much to do that to him.
But then I’m a big believer in vaccines.
Vaccines were first developed by Dr. Edward Jenner in 1796 who observed that milkmaids seemed to be immune to smallpox, one of the most virulent and disfiguring diseases ever to hit the planet. Jenner discovered that earlier bouts of “cowpox” — a milder cousin — had somehow immunized the milkmaids and he proved that by inoculating people with the milder pox he could save them from the more virulent strain. Smallpox has since been effectively irradicated by the vaccine and this success prompted the development of many more vaccines for diseases both virulent and simply troublesome.
Objections to vaccines were kicked off in the late 1990s by the since disproved claim that vaccines somehow triggered the development of autism in children. Parents desperate for an explanation, seized on this idea. But the study — of just 12 children — was shown to be flawed. And studies undertaken by several reputable research institutions including Columbia University, Trinity College Dublin and the CDC were never able to replicate the researcher’s results. He’s since lost his license to practice medicine and the Lancet, which published the original paper, has withdrawn it.
But doubts had been planted. And abetted by instances when drugs caused harm like thalidomide or when institutions behaved criminally like Tuskegee who used human beings as guinea pigs in a 40-year study of syphilis.
So yes, it’s important to research any medication and its side effects and weigh the pros and cons. But the idea that the MRNA vaccines are dangerous simply because they are vaccines has no merit. Look at the Salk vaccine that delivered us from polio.
As for my friend’s belief that if we eat right and exercise and take supplements to boost our immune system, we’ll be safe from disease because our bodies will simply fight it off, I’m afraid it’s a lot of wishful thinking. Yes, we want to do our part to stay healthy. But friends, I’m sorry to inform you that my life to date has proven to me that we don’t have control over these things. That despite my best efforts, I am not Super Woman, that I can’t fight off pathogens in a single bound, and that I don’t know more than Dr. Fauci and the CDC.
Which brings me to my friend’s third point — her distrust of the “mainstream media.” I understand that there are folks who don’t like what the “mainstream media” has reported, whether it’s the results of recent elections or reporting on corona and efforts to contain it. And I get the urge to “blame the messenger.”
But just stop and think about what the term “mainstream media” means. It means big business which means money is at stake. And yes, mistakes can be made and opinion can often slant presentation, but as a business, these outlets are held accountable. They have to fact check because they have to be able to defend their reporting against lawsuits.
Now think about what “alternative media” means. With the exception of a few reputable sites, it means an LLC and a website and somebody publishing whatever the hell they want to publish. Because hey — it’s free speech and if I wanna say that 650 people have died from a vaccine, I have the right to say it. And good luck trying to get a penny outta me if I’m wrong.
Which one do you trust?
As to my friend’s final point - mandates or the government “making” people take the vaccine - this brings me back to an understanding of civic duty. In other words, what we owe one another as citizens of this country. Frankly I think I owe my friends and neighbors and colleagues and family every effort I can make to stay healthy. To that end, I’m taking the vaccine and continuing to mask up so that I won’t inadvertently infect anyone.
Am I a “better person” for doing this? Am I smarter than the next guy? No. I’m just listening to medical experts. Because if my lifetime of writing has taught me anything, it’s that talent and consistent application in any given field confers authority in that field.
Which I hope the government’s scientists exercise sooner rather than later. Right now the armed forces are reporting a lack of vaccine compliance among its youngest troops who seem to believe they’re invincible. I’d refer them to their history. The “Spanish Flu” decimated troops, most of whom were husky young farm boys, as healthy as they come.
And while I understand the reticence of people of color after the Tuskegee scandal, there is no hiding the results of these vaccines. Everyone is watching.
And if we don’t take the vaccine? If we insist on the right to go bareback so to speak? The risk to the population at large is that the virus continues to spread and mutates into something far more deadly.
Look at the marked rise in cases of measles since misinformed parents started to object to the measles vaccine. Children are dying. And what do these stubborn parents do the moment their children come down with the measles? They run to the doctor for help, endangering both immunocompromised patients and infants in their waiting rooms and neighborhoods.
So no, I’m not opposed to mandates or requirements. Just as we mandate that children should be vaccinated before they start school, I hope we mandate that the population be vaccinated before they return to crowded stadiums, busses, classrooms and the like. It’s the least we can do for one another.
And it’s the key to returning to a life we remember.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)