I recently had conversations with a middle-aged man who is extremely careful about what he puts into his body. He eats lots of fruits and vegetables and stays away from red meat and processed foods.
He also refuses to get the vaccine against COVID-19, even as infections are on the rise again.
On one hand, the vaccine resistance made sense: His diligence about what goes into his body extends to a new medicine developed by a large pharmaceutical company in the midst of a public health crisis.
On the other hand, his anti-vax position made zero sense: The fellow is diligent about his health, yet refuses a vaccine against a contagious disease that has killed more than a million Americans.
I’ve tried to understand vaccine refusal, and recently asked Dr. Paul Rothman about it. He’s the CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine and dean of the medical faculty.
“Most of the people who were hesitant were just scared,” Rothman said, adding this: “If you took the time and explained it, you could get most people to get vaccinated.”
Rothman also noted the trust factor — or the lack thereof.
“We’re at a time when [Americans] don’t have a lot of confidence in large organizations, be that the government, be that hospitals,” he said. “Medicine has done better than many other types of organizations, but I think some of that is still present for medicine. … And Americans pride ourselves on the ability to be independent and free thinking.”
I tried to do what Rothman suggested and look at the bright side: A majority of Americans have been willing to do what’s necessary to combat COVID-19 and protect themselves against the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of Americans are fully vaccinated — that is, they’ve received two shots.
Call me a glass-half-empty guy, but a 66% fully vaccinated rate doesn’t sound that great to me. It means that, two years after the coronavirus arrived, a large portion of the nation is still living with an unnecessary risk of hospitalization or death.
“We are far below where we should be in terms of full vaccination,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Many other peer countries and countries with far less resources have much higher rates of vaccination and boosting.”
Peru, for example, has an 83% fully vaccinated rate, according to data tracking by The New York Times. Malaysia is at 84%. Brazil has a vaccine-averse president, a disciple of Donald Trump in Jair Bolsonaro, and yet it surpassed the U.S. several months ago. Brazil’s current vaccination rate is 78%.
Canada is at 83%.
“The U.S. has already lost a huge number of lives relative to our population size, many more than our peer countries, and the majority of them were unvaccinated,” Inglesby said. “This is despite an enormous effort to get free vaccines to every corner of America, at more than 90,000 locations, and despite a huge public education effort. We need to keep communicating to people that the unvaccinated and unboosted still face serious and unnecessary risks from COVID.”
The vaccinations developed so far need to be boosted with a third dose to decrease risk of infection and severe illness. But, as Inglesby points out, only 31% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster shot.
Dr. Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says boosting is going to be necessary until a more potent vaccine can be developed. “It would be great to have a long-lasting immunity response,” he said. “We need it because you’re going to run out of gas every five to six months. … I think we’re going to have to boost our heads off.”
People who refuse to get vaccinated continue to pose risks — to themselves and to those of us who’ve been vaccinated.
“They may get infected, they may get sick and die, some of them,” Gallo said. “They could be carriers [of the virus] even if they don’t get sick. And if new variants occur that are not as susceptible to the current vaccines that you got or I got, yes, that’s potentially and theoretically a problem.
“Now, if it’s the kind of virus that our antibodies are working well against, which could be the majority, if not all, of the variants today, then maybe it’s not so risky for us. But if we get infected by variants which our antibodies are not so good against, of course, they become a problem for us.”
Inglesby emphasized that there’s still time to get vaccinated and boosted.
“The more that people get vaccinated and boosted, the better it is for those individuals, and the better it will be for all of us,” he said. “There will be fewer people spreading the virus, less disruption, fewer people going to hospitals should there be surges in cases. And while higher vaccination rates would be good for all of us, we shouldn’t be thinking that if a certain percentage more of us are vaccinated, that we will all then be highly protected by a form of herd immunity.
“This virus is very contagious, more so than at the start of the pandemic, and so for the foreseeable future, if you are not vaccinated and boosted, unfortunately, you are going to be very susceptible to catching it.”