A recent Rainshadow article by Peggy Myre featured a photo I took while waiting in the Jefferson Healthcare vaccine automobile line. Within two days I received an email from someone who was alarmed at seeing I’d had my first shot. They wanted me to view a video as soon as possible. I didn’t know they felt so strongly about it, and to be honest, I didn’t want to have to write this article. But I offer it as my reasoned, respectful argument to get vaccinated.

Given that I respect the person who sent me the link, I watched the video. It is one of many fueling fears, so rather than link to it, I’ll just describe it. It’s a 42-minute interview between a doctor in the UK who specializes in dementia, and his guest, a veterinarian from Belgium who has a PhD in virology. The veterinarian claims that those who are vaccinated will be worse off than those who are not, that the human body will fight off most infections by itself, and that getting COVID-19 will “boost natural immunity.”

We’ve seen how well that worked—in Sweden, for example. Though it produced natural immunity in many, far too many people died, and an unknown number are suffering long-term effects. But we don’t need to go abroad to see the devastation—more than 550,000 American dead in one year is the starkest reminder of all. And we haven’t even begun to fully understand the long-term effects in many who’ve survived COVID-19.

The video rails against lockdowns and compares getting the vaccine to “installing new software on your computer,” wiping out your broad natural immunity and supposedly replacing it with narrowly specific antibodies that will not work when the virus mutates. It ignores co-morbidities and compares mass vaccinations to antibiotic overuse that creates super-bugs. Yet it offers no alternatives, so implications unnervingly resemble what Trump coronavirus advisor and radiologist Scott Atlas recommended: that infection of low-risk people should be encouraged, and high-risk people should go into extended quarantine that sounds nearly permanent.

Concerns about virus variants evading the immune system seemed valid, though, so I spoke with Dr. Kees Kolff, MD, at Jefferson Healthcare.* (His credentials: https://jeffersonhealthcare.org/hospital-commission/kees-kolff-md/) “There is no question that this virus is mutating all the time,” he said. “We already have three clearly identified more dangerous variants. Those three have different characteristics that cause slightly different severity of illnesses, and some of them are more contagious than the other variants. The vaccines so far seem to be almost as effective with these variants as they are with the original virus.”

So it’s not like “installing new software” that wipes out immunity to everything else. Good to know.

Mutate is what viruses do. We see it each year in the changing influenza virus. Many of us are used to the idea of annual flu shots reducing the risk of illness by 40-60 percent, with immunity lasting at least six months. Some of the COVID-19 vaccines are 95 percent effective in preventing illness and 100 percent effective in preventing hospitalization and death, according to Dr. Kolff and others. Serious side effects for reactions to the Covid-19 vaccine are “…less prevalent than reactions to the flu vaccine. While they can occur, these are very, very safe vaccines.”

We get routine booster shots (tetanus, diphtheria, etc) to periodically enhance our immunity, sometimes for traveling abroad; these shots recharge your immune system against diseases, many of which are no longer endemic in the U.S.—because of vaccines.

But what about side effects? “Yes, there are often side effects to any vaccine,” said Dr. Kolff, “and those side effects can vary tremendously between different people, and we don’t know why. In the case of people who receive the COVID-19 vaccines, the most common noticeable symptoms are short-lived: malaise, headache, maybe some fever. Those are the effects of your immune system ramping up to meet the challenge, which is what we want. The severity of symptoms you might get from the vaccine actually have nothing to do with how well your body is building up antibodies to the virus. Just because you might have a headache or some fever for a day doesn’t mean that you are building up more antibodies than someone who notices absolutely nothing, even with their second dose of Moderna or Pfizer—and by the way, these symptoms are more common after the second dose and should hardly be called side effects.”

It’s a relief to know the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines all seem to work pretty well against the three most worrisome variants, but what about the possibility of other mutations? “Well, we are now in a race,” said Dr. Kolff, “because the more people we can vaccinate with the vaccine we have now, the less likely it is that a new variant will find enough susceptible people to get hold of the population. The virus is mutating all the time, and fortunately most of the mutations are less effective at infecting people. Therefore, those mutations don’t show up—they just die out in the person in whom they have mutated. Thus, the more people we can prevent from having the virus, the fewer hosts that virus will have in which there is an opportunity to mutate.”

“So,” I said, “it becomes a sort of numbers game?”

“Exactly. This is why it’s currently a race to see: Can we get enough herd immunity soon enough, before the virus has enough human bodies in which to undergo more aggressive and/or contagious mutations, and cause another spike in cases?”

“And more mutations,” I said.

“And more deaths,” he replied.

 What about long-term effects? “We are learning more and more about the serious long-term effects from COVID-19,” said Dr. Kolff. “They don’t exist with influenza epidemics. You can of course die from influenza or get long-term lung disease, but the syndromes we are seeing in adults who are called ‘long-haulers’ are frightening, whether it’s unexplained psychosis, or long-term malaise, or other serious effects. People need to know is that this is not just a respiratory virus. This is also a vascular virus that affects blood vessels throughout the entire body—the heart, the brain, the kidneys, you name it, this virus has multiple target organs. It isn’t just about a bad chest infection. We tend to focus on the acute, life-threatening pulmonary problems, because like influenza, those are often the most obvious and immediate. But the damage to other target organs is what causes the long-term problems that we have only just begun to understand. Children can also get these serious, chronic problems.”

And a new study published April 6, 2021 in the medical journal The Lancet found that 34 percent of COVID-19 survivors are diagnosed with a neurological or psychological condition within six months of recovering from the initial illness.

So, given the recent statement from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology urging the more than 30 million people in the U.S. who have heart disease to get vaccinated, it seems unwise to not follow that advice.

While the scientific community readily admits they don’t know everything about COVID-19, they do know a lot, so, although there are a few medical exceptions, it doesn’t justify not getting vaccinated if you aren’t one. Dr. Kolff continued, “The generally low immunization rate in Jefferson County was identified as one of our four top health priorities back in 2014, and it became an important part of our Community Health Improvement Plan in 2017. Back then we were 30th out of 39 counties for the number of kindergartners with complete immunizations, and 38th out of 39 counties for the number of kindergartners ‘exempt’ from immunizations. Only 22 percent of Jefferson County sixth graders had complete immunizations compared to 86 percent in Washington State. There are folks who have been working hard since then to educate residents on the benefits of vaccines, but mistrust of government along with passionate campaigns are hard to counter.”

A close friend of mine is an ER doc in the Midwest who has been taking care of patients with COVID-19 since March 2020. To hear her describe the suffering and death she has witnessed daily is horrifying. The vaccine has kept her alive so she can keep working. But like many health professionals, she’s so burned out she’s thinking of quitting, in part because of irresponsible behavior and politically-driven start-stop closures and lifting of mask requirements. Chaotic handling of this pandemic that began with denial of science has dug some deep holes and ensured that if we lose the race against time, the virulence of Covid-19 could be around for longer than it might otherwise have been.

In the past few decades we have needlessly battered and discredited science into “just another opinion,” when in fact investigation of a source’s credentials should be part of any informed citizen’s reaction to new, contradictory information.

Credentials matter. I noticed the DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) in the video interviewee’s title rather than MD (Medical Doctor), so I googled him. While he has helped develop vaccines and done extensive animal research, and while there may be crossover knowledge about COVID-19 from his studies, I searched through his scientific publications and found nothing about coronaviruses. Does that matter? Possibly. Although it’s true that pandemic viruses can come from close contact with animals in “wet markets,” I could not find any medical journal articles authored by him, or reviews of clinical trials, or peer-reviewed infectious disease research from him, about coronaviruses or human subjects.

And given the potential severity of COVID-19 versus possible short-term discomforts of a vaccine to prevent it, why would I take the word of a veterinarian over that of thousands of medical doctors who’ve made public health a lifelong career, and who have been vaccinated? Why would I, as a three-time survivor of measles in the 1950s, doubt that vaccinations are one of the most successful public health interventions in history? I realize nothing is 100 percent, but after reading extensively and talking to Dr. Kolff and others, I believe any risks posed by this vaccine are far outweighed by the short and long-term dangers of COVID-19.

And here’s another reason it could be dangerous to not get vaccinated.

I worked in a federal agency that was ground zero for the bird flu scare in 2005-2006. Mine was the desk that calls came to, and we were inundated; there was panic in the air. The H5N1 virus had killed 60 percent of the several hundred people in Asia who caught it directly from poultry. What saved us was massive poultry culls and the fact that the virus never made it to a reliably lethal and infectious mutation for human-to-human transmission. In contrast, COVID-19 mortality is a fraction of that, yet its impacts have been staggering. Can you imagine the toll from a virus with a 60 percent human fatality rate? Are there worse pandemics possibly waiting? Have we learned from this one? Time will tell.

It boils down to trust, which doesn’t have to be absolute. It’s okay to be a little worried about a vaccine, yet to still get it, because it’s about beating the odds and winning this race. The odds are millions of people will keep getting vaccinated without complications, and herd immunity will save lives. Plus, getting vaccinated is an ethical decision. The most personal, fundamental questions we can ask ourselves are, if I can reduce my chances of serious illness or death by 95 percent, why would I not do that? And why would I not opt to protect others in my community who haven’t yet been vaccinated, by continuing to mask and practice social distancing?

I realize that by writing this article I may be running into a buzz saw of controversy, but when anyone suggests you shouldn’t get vaccinated against a potentially deadly disease, it deserves a respectful but firm response.

*Dr Kolff requests that readers know that his opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Jefferson County Public Hospital District Board or the Board of Health, on which he serves.

Top photo: The Jefferson Healthcare drive-thru vaccine clinic typically administers over 300 Covid vaccines every day it is in operation. (Carl Berger photo)

18 COMMENTS

  1. I have learned much about Internet Disinformation and how it contributes to the beliefs in “Conspiracy Theories,” Covid immunization mistrust or actually any polarizing belief system!! People who tend to “latch on” generally have a background psyche of being “true believers (without 100% confirmation)” in something. They have so much passion!! The only way to possibly “shake them somewhat loose” is to present another conspiracy theory for them to “chew” on. But, there is little chance of really opening up their belief systems. I have lots of family members who refuse to be immunized!! I just had my second one two weeks ago and am elated to finally have another “pod” over to my home without wearing the masks!! Take care……………

    • Hi, Marie. While there is considerable online disinformation on many fronts, I try to stay away from generalizations about large groups of people. There are many reasons for fear, and many of these people are highly intelligent–some are even friends, so in this essay I tried to not make assumptions about them, no matter how frustrated I might get about this issue. It’s about respecting and acknowledging how people feel, proceeding from there with as logical and respectful an argument as one can give, and taking extra precautions if they cannot respect your wishes and needs for masking, social distancing, and being vaccinated. Sometimes it means avoiding all contact with them, and hoping tragedy does not enter our lives. Beyond that it’s up to the decision-makers we elect. Thanks for understanding.

  2. Thank you, Karen, for this thoughtful and well-supported representation of the facts. For years, and especially since Andrew Wakefield convinced some highly-educated friends of mine that the MMR vaccine “caused” autism, I have listened to “anti-vaxxers” justify their willingness to reap the benefits of other parents’ acceptance of the tiny risk accompanying childhood vaccines. Our family physician in Edmonds, a member of our 40’s “boomer” cohort, explained to me that some younger physicians were willing to support these misguided choices because they had not not seen first-hand the dire effects of, for example, a measles outbreak in a population of school-age children. That absence of first-hand experience is cited in the following article as one way of explaining the anti-vax phenomenon.
    https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/why-are-the-educated-more-likely-to-be-against-vaccines

  3. Thank you for your articulate, well-reasoned, and well-supported piece. I hope you don’t mind that I have shared it with reluctant folks I love.
    Diane

    • Thanks Diane, the intent is to spark honest, heart-to-heart discussions among families using the best information that reputable scientific sources can offer. Share it as much as you want.

  4. Thanks everyone for your supportive comments. Vaccination resistance was a difficult and divisive issue even before COVID-19, and I hope this piece can contribute to a respectful community discussion.

  5. Thank you doing exactly what you written in regards to giving a firm response to those who question “why be vaccinated?” Your response clearly laid out “what is known “ yes we do not have all the facts, but to me, the facts support those who choose to be vaccinated , your article was written without being non-supportive or critical of those who resist.

  6. One more personhere who feels your article was right on. Thanks for the effort required to put together a well-researched & articualte piece of work.

  7. Thanks so much for your well reasoned and fact based article Karen! This is such an essential and difficult question and I am so grateful for your background in scientific analysis! And thanks to Kees as well! I always enjoy your columns and your perspective – now more than ever!

  8. A question I have is how do you respond to people not wearing masks and not distancing. I was at Sunny Farms yesterday and there were two different women in the farm store and grocery not wearing masks. Most people attempted to avoid them but these are small stores. Both have signs saying you have to wear a mask. The woman in the garden store asked me a question about a plant and I started to answer when I realized she wasn’t wearing a mask. I backed away about six feet as did the person with me. I have had my two vaccines but the young person with me can’t until after Wednesday. Should I have spoken up and questioned them, or reported them to the store manager? I don’t want to create a scene but I do want people to be safe. Thanks for your article, it was very straight forward with good sources.

    • Hi Marge,
      That’s a difficult question; I’ll do my best to answer. My response depends entirely upon the situation, but in the case you describe, I too would back away to at least eight or ten feet from the maskless person. Even though I’ve been vaccinated, I view mask-wearing as a sign of respect for the health of others who may not have been, or who may have medical conditions that render them more vulnerable. That helps me keep calmer in challenging situations. Perhaps, since she’s asked you a direct question, a mild suggestion that there might be spare masks at the front of the store in case she has forgotten hers (which happens) might suffice, and if her answer feels like a challenge, then I would walk away and not escalate by correcting or arguing, which could cause more viruses in the air. It is the store management’s responsibility to keep their patrons safe. Given the contagiousness of new variants, it would be too dangerous to everyone else inside the store for you to continue with her remaining maskless–if she’s resistant to wearing one, it’s likely to devolve into an argument.

      I cannot guess the problems or motivations of another person and would not want to police them unless they are getting so close to me personally that avoidance is impossible, and saying something is necessary. I have said to a man in a line, “Would you please step back to six feet? Thanks, I appreciate it.” Had he not, I would have left the store.

      If she persists on staying maskless and it’s a small store, I would probably leave and politely notify management on the way out, and also tell them that I consider it their responsibility to ensure the safety of customers. I know that’s hard for store managers who are super-stressed by all this, but stores can enforce mask-wearing via trespass laws, so if your safety is at risk, then vote with your feet. I also don’t shop at peak times – usually early in the morning is better.

      That said, having nearly been run down several times while trying to walk on the Larry Scott trail by packs of heavy breathing cyclists taking up the whole width, and I mean having to jump out of their way to avoid being hit as they speed around blind corners, I no longer use that trail because of the risks. A cyclist has a difficult choice because breathing as hard as they need to do requires unobstructed airways, but a pack of ten cyclists leaves a glitter trail of exhalations behind them that pedestrians have to walk through. It’s all about your safety. If you think it’s not safe, don’t go there.

  9. Karen, good job! Well written and up to date. Weight of evidence suggests we will all be collectively better off if we all get vaccinated asap. Why then, do so many people, even well-educated people, resist vaccination science or even bother to consider an abundance of available evidence? It is a problem that has long perplexed those who challenge willful ignorance. In a letter to the German astronomer Johann Kepler, best known for his equations that accurately described planetary motions around the sun, Galileo (who was being persecuted by the Church for providing evidence from his telescopic observations that planets orbited the sun, not earth) asked: “My dear Kepler, what would you say of the learned here [in Florence, Italy], who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?”

    • Thanks, John. It really does help to read history–Galileo was imprisoned by the church in 1633 for heresy, they demanded that he recant his work and kept him under house arrest until his death nine years later. There was a widespread movement in England from 1853 through 1907 against smallpox vaccinations, and more anti-vaccination, anti-mask efforts during the Spanish Influenza epidemic, and more recently, against measles, a disease with a 35% complications rate. (My sister went deaf in one ear from measles.) Knowing all that history doesn’t help us in present efforts to eradicate these diseases, but it’s good for sanity’s sake, to have such perspective–and to examine the basis of the fears that lead to such resistance.

  10. Excellent article. I get so “damn frustrated” by folks who do not wear masks at public places, even places that post signs which they purposely ignore. While I was at a local hardware store recently, I asked the clerk if she could say something to the customers that were without masks. Her response, “We aren’t paid to be cops. We are told we can’t say anything.”
    Nyla

    • Hi, Nyla,
      It’s hard to cope with the clash of values where most people agree with the medical community’s assessment that going maskless is a risky behavior, when somebody else considers it their freedom. As many have logically pointed out, one’s personal freedom ends at their “right” to infect others. Or to drive drunk and cause the deaths of others. Or to behave in any number of careless ways that are a public health and safety risk. Even the First Amendment has limits to free speech.

      However, arguing with either the offender or the clerk may not help. I thought that was an inappropriate response from the clerk, and would not patronize that store again if it happened to me. But I’m guessing a lot of store clerks are as terrified of a scene as you are. It may not be a clerk’s responsibility to act as police, but it certainly is the store manager’s. The clerk should at least offer to notify the store manager or owner so that someone who does have the authority to do so can require a mask. Stores can and do enforce mask requirements as their policy via trespass laws. Store managers are no doubt super-stressed during this difficult time, but it’s their responsibility to ensure the safety of their customers. If they refuse, then walk out–your safety is more important than an argument that can spread more viruses into the air.
      Karen

  11. I was critical of one of your previous pieces but was very heartened to read this well thought out view on vaccination. I think I will print it out for the portion of my staff who, much to my disgust, have decided not to get vaccinated. I think ignoring the facts and believing that COVID is not a real problem is selfish and ignorant. The increased impact on the healthcare system, of such an attitude, that will inevitably occur, does not just affect them personally but us all and I personally really resent that.

Leave a Reply to Karen Sullivan Cancel reply