Balancing Vaccine Hesitancy with Proper Precautions
The nationwide vaccination program has begun in earnest. To date, at least 15 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and one-third has received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the New York Times. However, there are some (such as surgeon and immunologist Hooman Noorchashm) who claim that vaccinating people with Covid-19 antibodies could potentially cause negative side effects, even death. While this concern is valid, we already have systems in place to report, monitor, and assess complications resulting from vaccination. More importantly, such well-intentioned warnings could actually prove to be counterproductive and confuse the public, generating heightened vaccine hesitancy that will end up putting more lives at risk. Ultimately, we must pursue the option that saves the most lives, and in this case, that option is widespread vaccination. While we should always promote the truth, we must be wary of exaggerating details or sounding unnecessarily large alarms.
First and foremost, we should acknowledge that the vaccines are shown to be safe and effective. In addition to evidence from clinical data trials, most people have only mild side effects after taking a vaccine, and some people have none at all. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “126 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through March 22, 2021” and out of this group, there were 2,216 reports of death (equivalent to 0.0018%). We cannot discount the fact of these lives lost; however, we should also recognize that the death toll is low. Additionally, the CDC states that “a review of available clinical information including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records revealed no evidence that vaccination [itself] contributed to patient deaths.” Hence, even at such high levels of usage, the vaccines themselves have not been the direct cause of any deaths but rather preexisting health conditions, such as diabetes.
Furthermore, there are already systems and regulations in place to significantly lower the risks from vaccination. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires vaccination providers to report any death after Covid-19 vaccination to a platform called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), where professional physicians review each case to determine its cause. The CDC also provides consultation services through V-safe, a smartphone health checker app for people to monitor their bodies after vaccination. Finally, a pre-vaccination screening process (in the form of a checklist submitted for evaluation) is required before vaccination, which would determine whether the person meets the criteria to be vaccinated.
Advocates of viral protein pre-screening warn of the dangers in vaccinating people who are recently or currently infected with the virus. However, the CDC has already clarified that people who have tested positive for Covid-19 should not get vaccinated; rather, they should wait until they meet the existing criteria for vaccination, such as not having received antibody treatments. Given that there are official CDC guidelines addressing vaccination of recently or currently infected individuals, these advocates are exaggerating the risk of a negative reaction due to existing antibodies. Another argument these advocates raise is that since the people infected are already immune, they should not be given the vaccines, and that we should only vaccinate people who haven’t yet been infected. This assumption is very dangerous: the science community does not yet know how long the immunity provided by antibodies from an infection lasts, and how effective the protection is (there have been confirmed cases of reinfection by the same strain of Covid-19, though rare). Moreover, scientists are unsure whether antibodies from an earlier Covid-19 strain protect against newer, more contagious, and deadlier variants that are currently exploding across the U.S. Thus, these additional warnings from doctors are unnecessary and will only cause confusion and vaccine hesitancy.
Some of these advocates argue that the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are at risk from immune response to the vaccines. However, these are also the groups that are the most vulnerable to the virus itself (and have been placed by the CDC as priority groups to receive vaccination). Moreover, while the virus has already resulted in disproportionate rates of hospitalization, death, and long-term effects in these groups of people, vaccinations have directly caused no deaths at all. Hence, vaccines will save more lives in this demographic, a benefit that outweighs the potential risk from side effects.
These advocates are also calling for the pre-screening of viral proteins, a process that will be both impractical and costly. A rapid antigen test costs, on average, $5, and though they return results quickly, they are far less accurate than PCR testing. Not all places in the U.S. will have the additional resources to implement such screening at a large scale. Adding this requirement will cause a delay in vaccination progress in order to address a disproportionately small risk. At the end of the day, this additional barrier will only impede our progress in vaccination and our ability to end this pandemic as soon as possible.
We already have effective measures in place to minimize and investigate vaccine-related complications and deaths. Screening for and checking if the person meets the criteria for vaccination is the responsibility of the medical provider, and we should not allow these procedural details to undermine people’s confidence in the vaccines. It is far more important to build up the public’s trust in vaccination and medical science. The spreading of misinformation and mixed-messages have already led to some vaccine hesitancy, and we should, to the best of our ability, encourage as many people as possible to be vaccinated as efficiently as possible. Only by doing so can we safeguard the health of all citizens in the U.S. through herd immunity provided by inoculation, and put an end to the pandemic.