A few weeks ago I sat down with my friend to eat some Vietnamese food, and over my lemongrass dish I explained about a piece I’d starting writing – this piece about getting vaccinated. And my friend wasn’t convinced it was a good idea – you should at least put it behind a paywall so less people read it. I do that sometimes with pieces I write that I wouldn’t want just anyone reading (in fact I have one written I’d like to share soon). And so I agreed. Then, about a week later, my friend brought it up again and said no I think you should just write it. So that’s what I did.
And I didn’t write this for the trolls. Whenever I choose to write on a complex issue with a lot of energy around it, there are always a few familiar folks who show up with their minds made up, totally sure, seeing it black and white. They’re easy to spot, and that’s alright – but I didn’t write this with them in mind. I wrote this in that grey middle space, for folks like me, not totally sure and not up for brawling about it. If that’s you, I hope it’s at least a little helpful. These are my words, my experience, what I’ve learned, my thoughts – may I entrust them to you?
The Two Questions at Hand
I believe the question is not so much are these vaccines effective and safe? The question is what do these vaccines mean? I want to address that first question a bit farther down, but to start, I want to think about the second question: what do these vaccines mean?
My Own Experience Getting Vaccinated
On Thursday two weeks ago I decided to get vaccinated. Vaccines have been available for quite some time, so I’m not exactly sure why I waited so long.
There were a few tangible reasons that made up my mind. First, Covid-19 is hitting us very hard again, here on the west coast and back on the east coast. As NPR reported in August, hospitals across the U.S. are, again, filling up. And again we’re in danger of being in a situation where people who need treatment will not be able to get a hospital bed because folks with severe cases of Covid-19 are filling them (we’re already there is some places). 1 out of every 500 Americans have now died from Covid-19. And no, we’re not talking about just those infected. The US population (331,449,281) divided by the number of Covid-19 deaths reported (663,970) = 499.19. 1 out of every 500 people in the US has now died from a virus that popped up less than 2 years. This has been verified by CNN, FOX, The Hill, and others.
Second, one of my trusted friends in medical field, Karlin Bacher, shared a video in which the Republican house representative of S.C.’s 5th district, Neil Collins, spoke with four local doctors and professors: Dr. Helmut Albrecht (prof. at USC), Delphine Dean (prof. at Clemson), Dr. Ted Swann (family doctor in Clemson), and Dr. Phillip Buckhaults (prof. at USC). They discussed the vaccines and gave their advice. They spoke with clarity and unity about the safety and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines, and testified they’ve not only been vaccinated but also arranged to have their family, children, and close friends take it as well.
And thirdly, I recently got to take a trip home to South Carolina where quite a few members of my home community have been recently hospitalized with the virus. I got to see my grandparents. I really love my grandparents, and while I would probably be find if I got Covid (I survived it once), I don’t know that they would be. Since I live 3,000 miles away, there’s a very small chance I would pass it to them. But the vaccine would ensure there would also be only a very very tiny chance I could inadvertently pass the virus to anyone else’s grandparents either.
We’ve all read a thousand articles and posts about Covid-19. But on that particular Thursday those three reasons, that hospitals are getting really full as the virus surges, that medical friends and professionals from my home area gave me a convinced, informed opinion, and that there was a real chance someone with a not-so-great immune system could actually die if I gave them a virus I could’ve not given them – these were enough for me to make my choice.
I searched “vaccine near me” and then took about five minutes to schedule a Walgreens appointment for the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. On Saturday, I drove to Walgreens and parked my car. On the way in, I was asked by a rough looking older man for assistance. I was reaching for a $1 bill when I realized he was asking me to roll him a cigarette. He had little papers and a can of tobacco. I told him I didn’t know how, and he said he didn’t either, but he was trying to learn. Inside the store, I filled out a page of paperwork, sat in a chair, then followed a pharmacist to another chair where he gave me a shot in the left arm with a silver needle. I stuck around to be observed for fifteen minutes, and then I was given a card, and I walked out vaccinated.
It’s so puzzling to me that so many of us are scared to be vaccinated. I was even puzzled why I waited so long. I think – even though I’m embarrassed to say so – I kind of believed all the hype. It wasn’t doctors’ opinions or professional advice that came across my newsfeed everyday making me suspicious. No – It was pundits or friends who think they have the latest scoop, and folks who are out doing their own research and sharing Tik-Toks. These are people I would never want medical advice from. Still, being surrounded by all this talk, all the rumors and accusations kind of got to me. What if they’re right? But on Thursday, I decided 96% of doctors means more to me than folks tapping on their iPhones.
So what does the vaccine mean? This is the central question for many of us. It was developed as a medical remedy, but for many of us it’s a symbol. Vaccines, like masks, have come to represent political expressions – they’ve morphed into more than things. Wearing a piece of cloth on your wrist does not have particular meaning associated with it. But we’ve all felt the awkwardness of wearing a piece of cloth over our face and not being sure what it means – how is this interpreted by the others in the room? While we could hardly care less if someone has the flu shot, asking someone if they’ve been vaccinated is a question with mountains more attached. We tend to assume so much – if I know this one thing, then I can pretty much put the rest in place. Did you hear so and so got vaccinated? – yeah, that seems about right, they seemed like the type! So what do these vaccines mean? You could write a mountain of articles and research papers asking that question. We all have to decide what they mean. And in our deciding we contribute to the collective conception.
Back to the First Question
Are these vaccines safe and effective?
I reached out Karlin for help compiling some data. Whether or not data means much to us is up to us. If we are totally engrossed by the other question, the one about what they mean and what kind of person would or would not get vaccinated, this second question and its answers won’t matter so much for us. But I think it ought to.
Are our doctors actually taking the vaccine?
96% of doctors are vaccinated (this is verified by Fox, Forbes, USA Today, The American Medical Association, and a whole lot of other organizations). Of the doctors who have not yet been vaccinated, 45% intend to take the shot. I think this is important. If we had physicians recommending treatment they would not administer to themselves or their families, that would seem to be cause for concern. Yet our doctors are in unison on the question of whether or not to be vaccinated. There are a very very small subset of outliers – the collective opinion among doctors is pretty unified.
Do the vaccines actually work?
Prisma Health is a care provider in South Carolina (they service the hospital I was born in), and they’ve been tracking and publishing data from Covid-19 hospitalizations. Their latest data at the time this is published shows:
Karlin has been tracking this data over time and reports, “The overall average of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients at Prisma Health this past month calculates out to 91%, but it has ranged from 86%-96% depending on the day.” The vast majority of those in the hospital suffering from Covid-19 are those who have not been vaccinated, and this is not an isolated trend. Forbes reports,
“For every 100,000 unvaccinated individuals, you could expect 2.03 of them, every day, to need to go to the hospital for a Covid-19 infection. Comparatively, for every 100,000 vaccinated individual, that same hospitalization rate is just 0.17: a risk reduction of 92%. Not only are you less likely to be infected at all if you’re vaccinated, but even if you get an infection, you’re far less likely to require hospitalization for your condition…if you’re unvaccinated as opposed to fully vaccinated. Across every relevant metric, the outcomes are undeniably worse.”
What about breakthrough infections?
There is concern that even those who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 could still contract the virus as breakthrough cases have been reported. As of the writing of this article, about 208 million Americans have received at least one dose – more than 50% of the population has been fully vaccinated. A graphic from the NYT shows:
A study from Los Angeles County reported by Reuters shows, “3.2% of fully vaccinated individuals who were infected with the virus were hospitalized, just 0.5% were admitted to an intensive care unit and 0.2% were placed on a ventilator. Among the unvaccinated who fell ill, 7.5% were hospitalized, 1.5% were admitted to an intensive care unit and 0.5% required breathing support with a mechanical ventilator.” As summarized by my friend, even in cases where vaccinated folks do contract the virus, “Vaccinated people who experienced a breakthrough infections seem to be less contagious & contagious for a shorter period of time than if they had not been vaccinated.”
The Heart of the Matter
Getting a needle in the upper arm at Walgreens wasn’t sexy at all. And when I went back outside the cigarette guy wasn’t even there for me to tell him about it.
At the end of the day, our hospitals are not out of beds because people are shooting up churches. Our neighbors and our grandparents are not in much danger of being hit by a terrorist attack. But 1 in 500 of our neighbors are dying from Covid-19. There is really transmissible virus putting a lot of people in some real trouble. We are collectively pondering what to do about that – maybe you’ve already decided – maybe you aren’t sure – maybe heaven and hell together couldn’t get you to do anything. I believe with all my heart that to live means to put your faith in something. You can’t believe in nothing – you can’t have no faith – everybody puts their faith somewhere. And faith without works is dead, even if your faith isn’t afraid of anything. The decision I made to get vaccinated is what I believe was the right thing to do. Of course, some folks have real medical reasons why they shouldn’t be vaccinated, but most of us don’t.
I’m reminded of what Martin Luther (the Reformation guy) had to say when the Black Death (bubonic plague) fell upon a deeply divided civilization in 1517:
“[Some] are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. That is not trusting God but tempting him. . . .
No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places where your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city . . . Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid persons and places where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
We live in trying times my brothers and sisters – each time has its own perils and challenges. Here we find our own. I do hope that my experience and perspective shared above might be of some help to you in some small way. I don’t mean to condemn you if you are of another mind. I do hope you will take into account not only one but both of the questions I raised in this article. And I hope we follow the example of Christ and the words of Paul to look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
My good friend Jeff recently shared a podcast with me about bias (Learning How to See with Brian McLaren). In the first episode of the second season, they outline 13 kinds of bias which keep us from seeing well – I’ve listed a few I think are really relevant here. I think we do well to keep these in mind when we’re looking at tough issues.
- Confirmation Bias: it’s easy to see things that fit in with what I already think.
- Community Bias: It’s easy to see what my community sees, and very hard to see something my community does not see.
- Contact Bias: I see only what I have contact with.
- Incompetency Bias: I am unaware of how much I do not know and have not seen.
- Conspiracy Bias: I tend to believe stories that cast us as the hero or the victim, never stories where I am the villain or accomplice.
- Catastrophe Bias: I accept information about clear and present danger – I struggle to see danger that is coming slowly.
I hope we will all be faithful in loving our neighbors and loving God, whatever that looks like.
Amen, may it be so.