Fear of illness, economic hardship and the threat of collapse of health systems have been with us for the last year. We have all had to make major choices about our work, our health, our schools and social distancing. Now we all will make an informed choice on whether or not to be vaccinated to protect against COVID-19.
The good news is every adult can benefit from the vaccines and the vaccines are effective and safe. In the original clinical trials of the current two vaccines involving nearly 70,000 people, there have been no hospitalizations or deaths in those fully vaccinated. Studies from Israel support the logical hypothesis that the vaccine not only reduces infection but also transmission of the virus from one person to another. Thus far, studies on new strains of the virus confirm the effectiveness of the vaccines.
Thus far there have been no confirmed reports of long-term complications related to the COVID-19 vaccine. We know from other vaccines that the vast majority of any negative consequences occur in the first 4 to 6 weeks and essentially all within 6 months. We are past six months in evaluating the original studies. Though the vaccine has minimal complications, a majority of people have some side effects ranging from the arm pain and headache I experienced to the day of fever, chills, fatigue and body aches suffered by my sister.
We know the greatest benefit of the vaccine will be in those at greatest risk from the virus. Although COVID is ultimately an unpredictable disease with the possibility of severe complications, hospitalizations and deaths at any age, ninety percent of deaths in COVID-19 occur in people over 55 years old. High vaccination rates in middle aged and older adults will result in plummeting hospitalization and death rates and will be a huge step towards ending this pandemic.
Although the risk of the virus is less in adults under 40, the benefit of the vaccine far outweighs the risk. The risk of COVID was made clear to us in Louisiana with the untimely death of Luke Letlow—Louisiana’s recently elected District 5 congressman. We don’t have definitive studies on the impact of the vaccine on pregnant women but the vaccine has been given in over 20,000 pregnant woman without major complications. There has been no increase in miscarriage rates with either the vaccines or the COVID-19 infection.
The rapid development of this vaccine in comparison to other vaccines in the past is not a reason for concern but instead is a tribute to medical science. The rapid development of this vaccine has more to do with companies working together in the national emergency; government guarantees that mediated the financial risk of the project; and the short time it took to recruit the 60,000 people for vaccine trials. Objective observers confirm all necessary steps were taken in the process.
We are rapidly overcoming earlier supply chain and administration barriers to vaccine roll out. Operation Warp Speed has been a great success and we are already exceeding President Biden’s nationwide goal of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days. We can be thankful Walmart and Amazon have joined with UPS, FedEx, Walgreens and CVS and the military to streamline distribution.
In our community, the vaccine effort is accelerated further because health systems, medical and nursing schools, National Guard and others have come together under the leadership of LSU HSC to operate a very effective mass vaccination site at the Fairgrounds.
From the community perspective, the vaccine allows each one of us to reduce the risk for those most vulnerable. The vaccine makes us more comfortable advocating for face-to-face teaching in our schools and allows a greater comfort level in face-to-face interaction with friends, families and coworkers. Widespread vaccination is the only way community life is going to get back to normal.
Many reading this have indicated their desire to wait to get the vaccine until more people are vaccinated. This is certainly understandable especially for younger adults. However, my hope is two-fold. First, that those who wait still encourage their parents, grandparents and older friends to get the vaccine when available. And second, that those waiting go ahead with the vaccine if the effectiveness and safety remain the same as the original studies.
It will be a heavy lift for our political leaders to prepare America for its next chapter post-pandemic. Just like influenza and bacterial pneumonia, we will coexist with COVID-19 for years to come. The virus is here to stay but not at pandemic levels. Political leaders will need to be prepared to make the conversion from making decisions on what we can’t do to decisions on what we can do. As we look post-pandemic, we need to think ahead.
Do we rapidly switch gears and view COVID as another infectious disease to treat daily at home and hospitals or do we continue ongoing quarantines, contact tracing and business closures? Do we take this reprise as an opportunity to concentrate our resources on development of a universal vaccine against all Coronavirus? Do we open the doors of our schools for in-school teaching? Do we concentrate on personal responsibility to make prevention decisions or continue the complicated government rule book?
It is hard to think about a better future when our hospitals still have a significant census of COVID patients. But in two or three months, all signs point to a sharp decline in the negative impact of COVID-19 as more and more people are vaccinated. In mid and late spring, it is my hope the vaccine will produce both widespread immunity and rational thinking— to resume greater social and economic activities in our community and our daily lives.
Dr. Phillip Rozeman is a practicing cardiologist and co-founder of Willis-Knighton Cardiology. He is past Chief of Staff of Willis-Knighton Health System and Minden Medical Center and past chairman of the North Louisiana Medical Society.