Commentary

We did it to whip polio and smallpox. We can do the same to COVID with a simple shot in the arm.

May 3, 2021 12:01 am

Jennifer Simmons receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during “Senior Weekend” at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Self-interest partly motivated me to get my coronavirus vaccinations. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I don’t want to get gravely ill and possibly die as too many friends and acquaintances have from this microbe from hell. I also want to go to California and meet my 6-month-old grandson.

I traveled three hours each way to get each of my shots so my wife and I could go to a restaurant someday, sit down and enjoy the place and the human interaction that all of us have yearned for.

That little vaccination card that so many folks proudly flash unredacted on social media selfies: it’s tucked securely in my wallet, and I’m not afraid to use it.

I also got my two helpings of Moderna’s finest for other people — because the thought of infecting not just my family but strangers and endangering their lives is intolerable.

I did it because the science is clear that our surest reprieve from the prison of the past 14 months is for all of us – acting together – to get the shots. I did it so Americans can once again safely ride a bus or subway to work, sit in a crowded theater, cheer our teams in crowded arenas or make happy hour at your neighborhood watering hole.

For all those reasons, millions of Americans have, like me, lived a monastic existence since St. Patrick’s Day 2020 – quarantining, masking, eschewing travel, social distancing, even wearing those creepy latex gloves. Getting this modern medical miracle vaccine is not too much to ask, for me or for you.

Vaccination is a compelling civic good. It’s something Americans once did as a point of personal and community pride. I remember hundreds of people in my small hometown queued in long lines outside the cafeteria of my elementary school on a Sunday afternoon in the early 1960s to ingest a cube of sugar impregnated with Dr. Albert Sabin’s polio vaccine.

Dr. Jonas Salk had already developed an injectable polio vaccine, and the combined work of Salk and Sabin in the ‘50s and ‘60s has virtually eliminated the once-incurable virus that randomly killed many and left others paralyzed.

Before that, vaccines had begun the essential work of making smallpox extinct as a virus at large in the human population.

Those vaccines took more than a decade to perfect before technology gave humans the ability to read, analyze and manipulate the molecular building blocks of life, deoxyribonucleic acid – aka DNA.

The COVID vaccine took humanity less than a year, thanks to that technology. And because of it, these vaccines came to market with far more safety, efficacy and confidence than its ancestors that defeated polio and smallpox.

As of the end of last week, about 103.4 million Americans — 31.2 percent of the U.S. population — had been fully vaccinated. That’s about the same percentage as Virginia, where 2.6 million have been fully inoculated.

The results speak for themselves. Among those who have been fully vaccinated and have waited the requisite two weeks or so after their last shots, only 9,200 have experienced subsequent COVID infections, said Dr. Danny Avula, appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam to coordinate Virginia’s vaccination effort.

That works out to fewer than one in every 10,000 fully inoculated people, or just under 1 one-hundredth of a percentage point. That far surpasses the efficacy estimates of 90 percent from the vaccines’ clinical trials, Avula noted.

Epidemiologists like Dr. William Petri say that somewhere around 75 percent of the U.S. population — give or take a handful of percentage points — will likely be necessary to achieve “herd immunity,” or the point where the coronavirus is effectively checkmated from spreading. That’s the point where we can fully reclaim our lives and liberties.

The success in Virginia and nationally is reflected in falling rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. Some states have fully lifted restrictions and mask mandates. Even cautious Virginia has loosened some limitations on public gatherings and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its face-coverings guidelines.

Now, America is beginning to do what it does best: bounce back.

So why stop short? With the chance to soon bury the coronavirus as we have smallpox and polio, why are tens of millions refusing to get vaccinated?

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Avula said in an interview. “In the beginning, it was people clamoring for this incredibly scarce resource, and in just a few months, we’re on the completely opposite end.”

Rather than setting up mass vaccination sites for long lines of people awaiting their deliverance through a hypodermic syringe, Avula and his counterparts nationally now must persuade, educate, prod, cajole, beg (pick your verb) Americans to receive their free vaccinations.

And if their appeals fail? Be prepared to relive the past 14 months.  

Allowing the virus a foothold anywhere in the world provides it with a breeding ground where it can replicate and mutate into more transmissible and deadly versions of itself.

What might that look like? Check out apocalyptic scenes of mass death in India where a dangerous double-mutant strain is unchecked and has turned up in the United States. Researchers don’t yet know how effective the current vaccines will be against it. Other nations, including the United States, are rushing tens of millions of vaccine doses to India in hopes of blunting what is now the world’s worst outbreak.

”As long as there is continued transmission anywhere in the world, then there is the opportunity for the virus to continue to mutate, to become more transmissible and begin to evade the vaccines,” Petri said.

The challenge has gone from organizing vaccination assembly lines for thousands of people to pleading with people to take the vaccine. Advertising campaigns enlisting celebrities are airing nationally and ubiquitous on social media.

A CNN poll last week showed that 71 percent of those surveyed said they had received at least one dose of vaccine and intend to get fully vaccinated compared to 26 percent who have not received a dose and don’t plan to get one.

For some, there’s just a distrust of vaccines generally – particularly one brought to market so quickly as this one.

For others, there’s historical distrust of government, a phenomenon that is especially true within minority communities. Uncle Sam’s cruel and unethical experiments on unwitting Black men in Tuskeegee, Alabama, in the 1930s remain unforgivable nearly 90 years later.

Follow-up by people who got one dose of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is a problem. Nearly 5 million people have been second-dose no-shows, meaning they will not achieve a high level of immunity and remain susceptible to illness.

Still others flatly refuse for ideological and political reasons. The CNN survey found that 44 percent of Republicans said they would not be vaccinated. Eight percent of Democrats and 28 percent of independents said they would not.

“It makes no sense politically because it was a Republican administration that gave us all these three different vaccines. It seems to me that Republicans would be proud of that,” Petri said.

To some extent, government and institutions can exert influence, even if it’s coercive. Attorney General Mark Herring last week issued an opinion that state-supported colleges and universities can legally compel students to prove they’ve been vaccinated as a condition for enrollment next fall.

But Avula says a softer, more community-oriented touch involving trusted local influencers is the new direction for Virginia’s vaccination effort.  It’s exactly the right move to overcome vaccine reluctance.

“Our strategies have completely shifted. It’s no longer about building large-scale, high-output venues, it’s about doing more small-scale, tailored vaccination efforts,” Avula said.

Little can be done to win over those who refuse vaccination for partisan reasons, Avula conceded. But for those who’ve based their hesitancy on misinformed fear, such as the false claim that the vaccines lead to sterility, facts and data from trusted sources such as pastors, teachers, family physicians and family elders might be effective, he said.

It’s a simple appeal, really: Do it for yourself if not for others. Do it for students who long to return to their classrooms; for full stadiums and Friday night lights this fall; for small businesses that need a chance to rebound and bring back jobs.

Do it so grandparents can hug their grandchildren again – or for the very first time.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]virginiamercury.com.

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