I’ve reached a point of impatience, intolerance and incredulity for the spinning of ignorance and the spread of vaccine disinformation.
Millions of researchers, clinicians, public health officials, volunteer EMTs and vaccinators have devoted innumerable hours to developing and deploying a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic at an astoundingly rapid pace — not only in vaccine discovery and production, but also in complicated systems and processes established and nimbly adapted as necessary to deliver on a vaccination timetable. This work is rooted in evidence-based information. That means clinical and public health decisions rely on the best data we have at any given time to deliver the best care for individuals, communities and the population at large. That principle fosters the most edified management possible.
Vaccine disinformation, especially when intentional, is unfathomable because it negates the valiant progress made to date and sets us all back as a country, not to mention as a global community.
As one of countless examples nationwide, I recall the first day working at a vaccination center when immunization was initially available. The atmosphere was sheer chaos; people registered in droves. More eligible adults lined out the door. But, in less than a week, because of caring, organized team members, the kinks and glitches were resolved; by the two-month mark, the center had vaccinated more than 20,000 individuals. We packed up the system and hit the road, diligently meeting people where they were — in their neighborhood churches, community centers, schools, etc. We’ve been addressing those who are vaccine-hesitant with calm, understanding, patience and empathy. Slowly, one by one, several more thousand recognized the value of vaccination and agreed.
Given similar exhaustive efforts and forward movement by millions of health care workers and volunteers, the growing faction of outright vaccine refusal feels unconscionable, especially when the perpetuation of this is based on lies. The misleading anti-vax dogma, designed to propagate doubt, reflects a false narrative and thought process often cultivated by people who are vaccinated themselves. That is both sad and cynical. I find myself constantly wondering why.
What is their endgame? The false rhetoric revolves around two distinct strands: (1) The vaccine (which is often inaccurately referred to as a “drug” or “treatment”) is described as “experimental,” and (2) a rallying cry about encroaching on “freedom.”
The premise of the first implies that, somehow, corners were cut in the development and testing of the vaccines. That simply is not true. Only the process of approval was sped up to purposefully control the pandemic that had already killed hundreds of thousands in the U.S., along with millions worldwide. Yet, even if that fake bluster had some merit, what will those sowing distrust say once the Food and Drug Administration has fully approved the vaccines (currently under Emergency Use Authorization, or EUA)? That day is coming very soon.
The second contention, a rallying call against vaccination, is more challenging to address. What freedoms are we talking about? The freedom to get sick and possibly die? The freedom to infect others, risking other lives? The longer that eligible adults and teens remain unvaccinated, the main freedom afforded is to the virus itself.
In fact, not only does the lack of vaccination foster freedom for the very contagious delta variant to spread, it lays the groundwork for COVID to further mutate into newer permutations that may be even more virulent and infectious. Exercising the “freedom” to remain unvaccinated, in truth, encroaches on the freedoms of everybody else in our society and our world. The expression “live and let live” portends a circumstance where one’s refusal to get vaccinated only impacts them. With COVID-19 (or any other infectious disease, for that matter), that is not possible. Making that choice impacts all of us by prolonging the pandemic and its associated restrictions to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That reality goes far beyond the health risks which, frankly, at least at the moment, are much higher for the unvaccinated. The renewed need for masks, social distancing, reduced crowds and gatherings, the potential closing of businesses and the return to hybrid schools, will become a vicious cycle. On the current path, the fall promises to look similar to phase two of the original COVID pandemic — not quite complete shutdown and quarantine, but definitely a life with restrictions for everyone because of the numbers of people influenced by the professed perspective of “individual liberty.”
Akin to not driving while drunk, which can save your life and those of others on the road, vaccination protects you, allows for everyone’s freedom, avoids negating the selfless work of millions of health care providers and volunteers, and impinges only on the “freedoms” of the virus itself. By avoiding protection of oneself, and therefore others, the virus beats all of us, and the heroic efforts of many may be for naught. If that is the endgame, then the choice of exercising “individual freedom” to not receive a COVID vaccination is, in actuality, choosing freedom for — rather than from — the virus.
Jacqueline A. Hart, M.D., is the director of Bassuk Center for stable housing, wellness and opportunity, the editorial director of www.Covid-Recovery.org, Where Science Meets Humanity, and a contributor to Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center (VIC) Media Group.
Mark C. Poznansky, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, contributed to this column.