EDITORIAL: As vaccine rolls out, real work set to begin
The progress in the development, testing, review, and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccinations will likely be remembered as a modern miracle.
Private companies, research universities and governmental agencies partnered around the world to identify the highly contagious coronavirus and develop vaccines to prevent its spread in less than a year. Historically, that has been a process that takes years to clear developmental and regulatory hurdles.
Already, more than 88.6 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been administered in the United States as of Feb. 25. In Delaware, more than 196,000 doses have been received by a resident, with about one out of every 20 state residents fully vaccinated and one in seven receiving at least one shot. Those numbers are expected to rise in the coming weeks as Johnson & Johnson potentially obtained its emergency use authorization to release its one-shot vaccination.
The importance of getting a vaccination when eligible cannot be overstated. The nation recently crossed the threshold of 500,000 deaths – a statistic beyond what many experts believed the worst-case scenario could be a year ago. In Delaware, more than 1,400 people have died from the virus.
Even those among the more than 27 million Americans or 85,000 Delawareans who have contracted the virus and survived can attest that it’s not a pleasant experience. Many of them are facing unforeseen medical issues related to brain function and movement, while others have lost their sense of taste or smell for months afterward.
As we’ve heard discussed for months, the threat of COVID-19 is not only to yourself, but to your family members, friends, coworkers, and those strangers who you will never know but incidentally come into contact with amid our daily lives. Protecting ourselves through social distancing, mask wearing, and sanitizing has helped to slow the transmission of the virus.
While we may be encouraged by Gov. John Carney’s recent relaxation of capacity limits on restaurants, gyms and indoor gatherings, news that more professional sports may allow fans to attend this spring, with economists and politicians telling us that we are rounding the curve, we must be wary. This progress could just as easily hit a brick wall in coming months if we don’t all do our part – and by that, I mean actually get vaccinated.
While many may think that only a small percentage of the population will hold out on getting what feels like a pass to return to our previously scheduled lives, the reality is that the hesitancy of vaccination may be worse than thought.
In a survey of roughly 5,700 state residents in mid-December, more than 16% reported that they “definitely” or “probably” won’t receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Those numbers may actually undercount the problem as well, as survey respondents were disproportionately white and college-educated, whereas minorities and those with a high school education or less have traditionally been tougher to reach in public health efforts. The top concern cited was that it was “developed too fast and not tested enough,” followed by worries about side effects and a lack of trust in government.
As I wrote back in September, it was incumbent on the developing companies to hold the process to the highest standards as the eyes of the world were upon their work. AstraZeneca suffered a public misstep in its trials but did the right thing by halting tests and investigating the issues. It likely fell behind its competitors due to the decision, but it was the morally right one.
While there were fears that politics, especially in the midst of a heated presidential campaign, would interfere with the high standards needed to convince the public of the vaccines’ efficacies, there is no reason to believe the work was rushed out without proper scrutiny. In fact, we should recall that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was criticized by many for its exhaustive review process to ensure the science was valid.
Jennifer Horney, chair of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology department, recently told me that data is being published frequently right now about the efficacy of the vaccines, especially on those who had already contracted COVID previously.
“Everything looks like it’s going in the right direction and now this is a risk communication problem,” she said.
While there are a certain percentage of people who hold deep-seated anti-vaccination beliefs and won’t likely be swayed by messaging, there are a larger number of people who just need some education and reassurance. Getting them vaccinated will be an integral part of reaching that heralded “herd immunity” level, likely around 75% of the population, due to the fact that none of the vaccines are currently approved for those under age 16 – or roughly one in five Delawareans.
Horney said that science shows that vaccination efforts follow similar patterns as natural disasters, which she also studies.
“People are more likely to follow an evacuation order if their friends and family are doing it,” she said. “They would rather hear about it from someone that they know than to get an official warning.”
Horney advised that the community should lean into places of common trust, such as barber shops or churches, to help spread the needed messaging. With reports that a large number of prioritized health care, law enforcement and military members are also resisting entreaties to be vaccinated, even here in Delaware, Horney noted that’s why the focus must remain on getting as many people vaccinated as possible and spreading a personal message.
I encourage everyone to talk with their families and friends about the importance of vaccination. Share your experience and encourage your loved ones to take advantage of the vaccine, that way we can all safely mingle again this year.