Up until a few days ago, I was one of the dreaded “hesitant.” Most of the people I know in the staunchly blue county I live in are already fully vaccinated and I had been going back and forth for weeks. When I mentioned my hesitancy to some fellow parents, it was clear that we could not talk about it. Anything other than “hooray for the vaccine” was immediately met with surprise and judgement because they all read the NY Times and I don’t fit the profile. I have never voted for a Republican in my life. I believe the pandemic is real. And I definitely care about vulnerable people.
So what was stopping me? Are the vaccine hesitant just stupid, selfish, paranoid jerks?
I was not afraid of the vaccine. Despite my profound distrust of pharmaceutical companies and official public health narratives that have strained the credibility of authorities, I am relatively confident it’s not going to kill me. I don’t think I have been implanted with a microchip. I am also willing to accept the early data that it is effective in preventing the most serious symptoms. However, no one has any idea of how well it will hold up to variants or what long-term side effects there may be yet and, as I understand it, the clinical trials were never designed to, and do not provide, any definitive data that shows the vaccine prevents us from spreading the virus to others.
One argument I’ve heard is that vaccination is not about me and my symptoms so much as healthy people like myself contributing to a collective effort to stem the pandemic and protect the vulnerable. The more people who get vaccinated then the sooner we get to herd immunity and stop the virus. This confuses me. If the vaccine is effective at keeping me from getting the worst symptoms but doesn’t make me immune from infection or spreading it asymptomatically to others then how does vaccination stop the virus?
When I go to the Worldometer, it shows that 98% of people in the US who tested positive before the vaccines were available have recovered. Some percentage of those people are experiencing “long covid” or other complications. But an overwhelming majority of the people who were officially infected were able to handle it without vaccination. Are they not contributing to herd immunity? Not to mention, the latest news seems to suggest that many epidemiologists now believe that, despite the vaccination campaign, the threshold for herd immunity will never be reached.
If the vaccine doesn’t stop me from spreading it to others then my vaccination is not about protecting vulnerable people so much as a matter of public perception and determining an acceptable amount of risk.
I suppose if enough people get vaccinated and are no longer at risk of dying then the issue of spread becomes moot. It doesn’t matter if people are getting infected and passing it to others if no one is dying from it. That’s probably why the CDC has been so dodgy about mask mandates. But there is always going to be some percentage of people who will still die even with vaccination and masks, whether from a virus variant or from an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Also, wouldn’t vaccinating the vulnerable be enough to protect them from the unvaccinated?
The question I kept coming back to was: Am I at risk enough without vaccination to warrant a prophylactic intervention? Unfortunately, there is no way to really answer this question as it is entirely relative. According to the data, someone of my age and demographic has a 99.93% chance of survival if infected without vaccination, but a 99.99% with. So, why wouldn’t I want to give myself that extra little layer of protection? Even though I am very low risk, the fear is that I could be one of those perfectly healthy people who still get it and die. Do I trust my own immune system with a risk of 0.07% of dying or do I put my faith in Dr Fauci’s patented technology to get it down to 0.01%?
In the end, my decision to get vaccinated was about protecting me from the hardship of trying to have this conversation more than dying from covid.
Neither my wife nor I wanted to get vaccinated. We were both feeling OK with the level of risk that the pandemic poses to ourselves and our children without vaccination. However, the majority of our friends and fellow parents believe that those who don’t get vaccinated are the problem. And there is no room for a nuanced position because trying to talk to them about why we weren’t getting vaccinated meant calling into question their reasons for doing so. In order to remain unvaccinated without alienating ourselves and creating deep emotional hardship for our family, we would have no choice but to lie about it. Frankly, there is part of me that was prepared to do just that but no part of my wife was. And I love her for this. She is the most honest person I have ever met and she decided that she would rather get vaccinated than have to lie. I am largely agnostic about the vaccine and got my shot not because I think I really need it but in solidarity with her.
Of course, I want to do whatever I can to contribute to collectively overcoming the pandemic. But I don’t understand why so many people seem so certain that the vaccines being used are going to do that. I saw an interview with the head of Pfizer the other day talking about an antiviral covid pill that is expected to be available by the end of the year. The reports that the vaccinations are “likely” bringing the numbers down remain to bear themselves out. Apparently, we will find out if the vaccination campaign has worked come September or so.
But the science behind the pandemic is not settled. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either being disingenuous or is simply going along and hoping for the best. Setting aside the question of its origins, and whether or not the heralded new mrna technology has unforeseen ramifications, there is no certainty to be had. Given this, perhaps those who are feeling high and mighty about their vaccine status might take a step back from all the judgement and shaming. Following recommendations that are largely based in politics more than science doesn’t put us on the right side of history, it makes us dangerously close to a new paradigm of authoritarianism and mass delusion.