Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our country and its citizens have arrived at numerous metaphorical forks in the road, only to often take the wrong one. It seems that we are at yet another fork — and have again gotten lost in the wrong direction. But there is time to turn the car around and straighten this out. The only question is, will we do it? And if so, when?
In medicine, we talk about certain conditions as “vaccine-preventable diseases.” These are, as the term implies, illnesses and diseases that can be prevented by the acceptance of an available, effective immunization against the referenced condition. When the first COVID-19 vaccines became available in December 2020 and were quickly available widely and free to the American public, it became a vaccine-preventable illness.
Sadly, it was also at that point when millions of people made the decision not to receive the vaccine. Some for reasons of deep-seated, historical mistrust in the medical system, but many others because of intentional misinformation spread by dishonest media sources, politicians and on social media platforms, with some overlapping into both categories. Sadly, this decision will likely cost lives. And this is where we are in America at this point in the pandemic, the current fork that we just passed is quickly fading into our rearview mirror. In a predictable turn of events, this has now become the pandemic of the unvaccinated.
Consider our home state of Tennessee, a state of almost 7 million people where 1 in 542 citizens have died from COVID-19. With only 38 percent of the state fully vaccinated, the Tennessee Department of Health abruptly stopped vaccine outreach efforts after it became a political hot button for some legislators. This disappointing turn of events came at a time when many children are behind on their routine childhood immunizations due to the collateral effects of the pandemic. Keep in mind children are returning to camps, sports and in a short time school — and only 19 percent of those 16 to 20 years of age are fully immunized against COVID-19. We simply cannot afford to allow public health to be politicized. Too many lives have been lost and we have many more that we need to and can protect through public health outreach and efforts.
As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths begin to rise once again in our country, with cases among children rising as well, the Delta variant is taking hold, more transmissible and perhaps more deadly than before. There continues to be an avalanche of misinformation on the vaccine.
Those who are currently being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated in almost 99 percent of cases. Yet, the misinformation, high rates of unvaccinated people and the new variants threaten the health of all of us. When we talk about those who are unvaccinated, in addition to those who remain skeptical, we also must consider children, low-income communities, communities of color, rural areas and others. While vaccine information may seem to be primarily targeted to people of certain political demographics, it often reaches, or even targets, Black, Latino and Native American communities. Perhaps this is an additional motive for many of these operatives, to target communities who are already vaccine hesitant due to years of distrust in the medical system and who are suffering higher rates of illness and death from COVID-19.
It is time for our country to not only turn the wheel and get vaccinated in large numbers, but it’s also time for us to reexamine the entire system. The World Health Organization has named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health threats. We must rely on the evidence, the science and public health experts to guide us through the vast amounts of information, guidelines and ongoing research through the pandemic and for all public health issues. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. They perform very well against severe disease and death, even against the variants. We must condemn and stop sources of misinformation, relying instead on the healthcare providers and experts in their fields, like pediatricians who deal with vaccines and provide education and guidance on these topics as part of our daily work. We encourage all who are eligible, including children and adolescents ages 12 years and older, to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and for parents to ensure that their child’s routine immunizations are up to date also. The last thing we need now is an outbreak of another vaccine-preventable illness.
It doesn’t have to be this way in our country. There is still time to get the COVID-19 vaccine, to turn around and head down the right path, so that we can no longer talk about a pandemic of the vaccinated or unvaccinated and put this era in our rearview mirror. Otherwise, buckle up for a continued bumpy ride.
Anna Morad, MD, FAAP, is a general pediatrician in Nashville, where she serves as president of the Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.