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)