The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in our community now will depend on the percentage of COVID-19 strains that are delta variants and the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated. We know that in West Texas the delta variant is responsible for 90% of current cases. The vaccination rate in West Texas is relatively low when compared to the country and state.
There are many understandable reasons for vaccine hesitancy. You may be unvaccinated because you are worried about vaccine side effects. Your concern may be that you have heard many friends and neighbors describe the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines, especially after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Are there such side effects? Yes, definitely, however it is important to know that these symptoms are not dangerous and will go away after one or two days. No one should make light of the fever, chills and muscle aches that occur after vaccination and it is true that you could even miss a day or two of work. We need to make Fridays a big vaccination day to have the weekend to recuperate. Tylenol or Advil will improve symptoms. Protection against severe illness or a lonely death from COVID-19 is worth the sacrifice.
There also are concerning but rare side effects reported with heart inflammation and Guillain Barre Syndrome. They occur because when the vaccine produces protective antibodies against the virus it may produce some friendly fire hits to our own body tissues. Fortunately, we know these to be uncommon events that are treatable. These side effects are more likely to occur associated with the viral illness itself. For Guillain Barre disease, the vaccine has caused 100 cases per 12 million vaccinations. For myocarditis, 1 in 100,000 cases.
For those worried about side effects occurring over long periods of time, the vaccine message stays intact in the body very briefly. Our immune system sees the vaccine message, makes antibody to protect against the virus and the message is gone shortly thereafter.
Some vaccine hesitancy comes from the misconception that healthy people rarely get sick from COVID-19. Here we face a major philosophical difference that potentially divides us. If you are healthy, it is unlikely you will get severely ill from the virus even if you remain unvaccinated. This is usually true. However, with a delta variant, once infected, you will infect six people on average, maybe many more. Who will they be — a grandparent, a co-worker, a child?
Could you actually kill somebody by passing on your infection? Everyone who dies in the intensive care unit caught COVID-19 from someone. Additionally, with the delta variant, young, healthy individuals have become seriously ill and young people are in West Texas intensive care units today.
Some unvaccinated have said that they are confused by too many experts saying too many different things about the pandemic and changing views over time. Many physicians also are frustrated about differing views particularly as expressed in social media. As information about COVID-19 has changed, recommendations also have needed to change. The delta variant is different from previous strains so masking recommendations have been reconsidered even for those already vaccinated.
All infectious diseases experts and almost all responsible physicians understand the value of masks, and the value of vaccination. If you have been led to believe that either are ineffective or that some available drug such as Ivermectin is a better solution to the pandemic, those are dangerous and unfounded beliefs.
Physicians are taught to highly value patient autonomy, the ability and right of patients to make their own decisions about their health care. But there are limits, and the most important limitation is when autonomy affects the welfare of others. Choosing not to be vaccinated or not to wear a mask does indeed affect the life and wellbeing of others. All over the country, government leaders will be mandating both vaccinations and masks. In Texas, the extent of masking and vaccination is based on individual decision making. The choice to get vaccinated will protect our citizens, our families and our neighbors from additional tragic consequences of this pandemic.
Vaccination against COVID-19 is not a political issue. With the current threat of catastrophic overload of Texas hospitals, vaccination will help guarantee that a bed will be waiting when a heart attack or cancer patient needs one.
If you are a Texan, the decision to vaccinate is yours. Please make this most important generational decision correctly. It could be the most important decision you will ever make. Someone’s life may depend on it.
Steven L. Berk, M.D, an infectious disease physician, is the executive vice president of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and dean of the School of Medicine.