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Avoiding or pursuing the COVID-19 vaccine

I asked one of my 78-year-old patients, a very nice, churchgoing lady, if she had gotten the vaccine. She said, “Oh, no, doctor. I put my faith in the Lord.” 

I told her the old joke: “The flood came, and the water reached Tom’s porch. Tom refused the rescue boat, saying, 'I have faith in the Lord.' The boat returned when the water was at the second floor and then at roof level, but each time, Tom refused, saying he had faith. In Heaven, Tom asked God why he’d been forsaken. God replied, ‘Three times, I sent you that boat, but you refused my help!’”

My patient smiled politely, the kind of smile my grandmother gave when someone was being rude. That was back when the vaccine was just approved and people were still hesitant.

Now, much of the vaccine hesitancy has evaporated, and people are scrambling, cutting in line to get the COVID vaccine — a frenzied fear that they are going to be left behind. You know the feeling. You don’t want to be the dummy who sits dutifully in line for a slice of delicious pie while everyone else is cutting in front, only to finally get to the front and find out that the pie is all gone.

There are bottlenecks in supply and distribution. My colleagues and I volunteer at the vaccine clinics to help out. 

In New London on Feb. 5, we saw people from Fairfield county and New Haven who were grateful to get the vaccine. But of the many people we saw that day, I only saw three Black people and two Hispanic people, an underrepresentation of our Black and Hispanic population in New London. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation Poll published in Jan. 22, Blacks adults (43%) and Hispanic adults (37%) were more likely than White adults (26%) to take a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine.

I’ve asked some of my older Black and Hispanic patients and friends, who are hesitant to tell me why. “I don’t trust it” is the usual answer. “Too fast” and “I don’t want to be someone’s experiment and then find out three years later that something went wrong.” One woman talked about the unethical Tuskegee experiments. Between 1932 and 1972, the federal government conducted experiments on impoverished black men with syphilis, promising “free healthcare” but giving placebo instead of proven therapy, for the sole purpose of documenting what happens when untreated syphilis ravages the human body.

Fear and mistrust are valid feelings, of course, but fear shouldn’t paralyze. My colleague H. Anthony Carter, MD, MBA, New London Regional Medical Director of Northeast Medical Group, put it succinctly: “The main message is that in the two large clinical vaccine trials with Moderna and Pfizer, which involved more than 70,000 patients, there were zero deaths and only 1 patient that contracted COVID-19 who became sick enough to be hospitalized. What this demonstrates is that after patients have received the two recommended doses of either vaccine, they don’t get severely ill and they don’t die from COVID-19 infection. That is the number one reason why everyone that is eligible needs to be vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

Science and history informs and advances all of us. The health of our community depends on all of us helping all of us get systematically vaccinated.

 

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