Vaccine hesitancy isn't entirely unsurprising.
Public health initiatives and the governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic have been at various times ham-handed, inconsistent with knowledge at the time, misleading, contradictory, overly coercive, lacking compassion, and power-seeking.
The vaccines themselves became politicized when then-candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris conflated the vaccine development process with President Donald Trump’s persona.
It is time to put all that baggage aside and focus on actual data and experience. We must remind ourselves of the significant downside of refusing vaccination.
In the United States, other than short-lived and passing vaccine reactions, most systematic serious adverse vaccine reactions in the last 65 years have been from manufacturing failures or contamination (both rare occurrences). Certainly, no previously unknown serious side effects have emerged a year or more after vaccine administration.
Even in situations in which the vaccines cause rare significant side effects, such as the recent finding the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine causes more serious blood clots than the competing vaccines (3.8 cases per million vaccines), the benefits have been judged to outweigh the risks substantially.
- About 8.5 billion doses of the various COVID-19 vaccines have been given. Roughly 8% of them have been in the U.S. — the biggest vaccine "trial" in history. This has occurred without any patterns of injuries that would challenge the judgment that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
- The most recent data on the importance of vaccination come from the Washington State Department of Health. Depending on age, you are 10-17 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 if you are unvaccinated compared with people who have had the shot. Those over 65 are 11 times more likely to die.
- Although being infected with COVID-19 does confer some natural immunity, it’s suboptimal. A recent study found "large antibody responses 6-10 days after booster, with antibody levels that exceed levels documented after natural infection with COVID-19, after two doses of vaccine, or after both natural infection and vaccination." According to the summary proceedings of a recent World Health Organization meeting, T-cell immune responses to variants, including omicron, should remain "largely intact." However, that optimistic prediction doesn’t seem consistent with the extremely rapid spread of symptomatic omicron infections in dozens of countries.
- However, the breakthrough cases have been mostly mild and frequently asymptomatic, probably reflecting that omicron replicates preferentially in the large airways (bronchi) rather than the lungs, lowering the probability of severe disease. California data on vaccinated versus unvaccinated at the end of November showed the latter were far more likely to be hospitalized or die than the former.
- Infections, whether progressing to hospitalization or not, carry the risk of "long COVID," which is marked by persistent, often debilitating symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue, loss of smell or taste, headaches, myalgias, etc. Recent data suggest these persistent symptoms are more often associated with the severe infections more commonly seen in unvaccinated individuals.
- We must also remember the increased risk of death from COVID-19 is not limited to the initial illness. Severe infections, especially, carry with them a substantially increased risk of death from all causes during the following year. A study by researchers at the University of Florida found a 233% increase in mortality among hospitalized patients who previously had severe cases of COVID.
The factors discussed above emphasize the risk reduction achieved with vaccination. Thus, it is reckless to refuse vaccination because of mistrust of the government or drug companies, misinformation about the risks of the vaccine, or fear of flu-like symptoms for a few days post-vaccination.
The vaccines dramatically reduce the health risks for the person taking them and benefit the community by preventing stress on the economy and the healthcare system. The bottom line: "How can you justify not getting the COVID-19 shot?"
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies.