Is it too early to start contemplating a post-COVID world?
The fighting over the election isn’t nearly over, but perhaps Monday’s biggest news was that Big Pharma rockstar Pfizer Inc. says it has a CV-19 vaccine that’s “90 percent effective.”
I’ll try not to get lost in the weeds about the coincidence of a vaccine announcement coming less than a week after Election Day. Raise your hand if you’ve heard at least 100 Trump supporters half-joke a vaccine would appear the second Trump lost the election. Truth is stranger than fiction, right? Or maybe there’s a reason so many of us are cynical.
While the vaccine may be 90 percent effective in preventing COVID, its announcement six days after the election is going to be 100 percent effective in making conspiracy theorists’ heads explode. The concept of anyone having held onto a vaccine until the election is over while people are dying is too horrible to contemplate though, so let’s just consider the timing coincidental. Besides, President Trump has been saying there would be a vaccine by the end of the year, something that was laughed at as campaign bluster.
Moving past that issue, let’s consider the bigger one — will Americans in general and Alabamians, in particular, take the vaccine if it starts being distributed in January? Nationwide polls indicate a resistance to developing a resistance, so to speak.
In August, Gallup released the results of a survey showing 35 percent of Americans wouldn’t get a vaccine immediately after it became available. The willingness to be vaccinated, as with so many things these days, was heavily split based upon political affiliation. According to Gallup, 81 percent of Democrats said they would take the vaccine, while just 59 percent of Independents would and only 47 percent of Republicans would.
A USA Today/Suffolk poll released in September echoed those sentiments, with two-thirds of respondents saying they wouldn’t want to get a vaccine when it first became available, and a quarter saying they wouldn’t ever take it. Those against taking the vaccine cited the speed with which it would have to be developed and fear they would essentially be used as “guinea pigs.”
Making matters even more complicated, every time the question is asked, fewer people are saying they want to take the vaccine — either at all or immediately after it is available.
A Harris Poll from mid-October found the overall number of Americans who said they would get a vaccine as soon as it was available had dipped to just 58 percent.
So, if polls are to be believed — and after what we saw in the election that’s a massive IF — there might be pushback from roughly half the country when it comes to getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Anecdotally, I can probably count on one hand the number of people I’ve spoken with who are fired up about getting a vaccine as soon as it’s released. Lots of people are excited about a vaccine — as long as other people are taking it. Even some of the people I know who are the most frightened by COVID still have said they aren’t interested in getting the vaccine. That attitude is also expressed by some medical professionals I know.
It’s hard to feel completely secure about family, friends and co-workers having to get a vaccine that was whipped together in six months, either. I’m sure almost all of us would rather be in that second, third or fourth wave of people to get the vaccine, just so we can see how it’s going.
The fear people express is having a severe reaction to the vaccine. It seems likely when you’re talking about inoculating 300 million people that someone will have a poor reaction. Is it worth the risk? That’s the question. The other question is whether we’ll even be given a choice.
According to news reports, the first rounds of the vaccine, once it’s approved for distribution, will go to health care workers and the elderly, which makes sense as they are the most at-risk groups. But how long will it be before Operation Warp Speed runs up against Alabamians who don’t want to take a COVID vaccine?
Of course, we’ve been down this road before, to a degree. For years, most people have thought nothing of getting vaccines for polio, hepatitis, measles, mumps, polio and a host of others. According to the CDC, a child should get about 10 immunizations before he/she is 6. Not to mention another round before they turn 18. Yes, there are the anti-vaxxers who believe vaccines are responsible for a number of problems, such as autism, but the vast majority of Americans clearly recognize the need for vaccinating against those old-school foes.
But COVID is a new thing, and even though Pfizer and the government both claim the process was not rushed, and the vaccine won’t go out until everything is approved, those polls indicate a high degree of suspicion. History also feeds those fears.
In 1976, Gerald Ford pushed for Americans to be vaccinated against swine flu, fearing a Spanish flu-like outbreak. Swine flu never became the hit disease Ford feared, but 45 million people were inoculated, and 450 of them developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, which was believed to be a result of the vaccine.
In 1955, Cutter Laboratories released more than 200,000 polio vaccines in which the virus hadn’t been killed, leading to 10 deaths and 164 paralyzations. The number of bad outcomes in both of these instances was very small compared to the number vaccinated, but it would be hard to imagine the level of media attention any death from a COVID vaccine might receive.
Those large numbers of Americans who don’t want to take a CV-19 vaccine will probably soon have to make a decision. We can probably first expect the schools to require a vaccine for attendance — even though school-age children are clearly the least susceptible to becoming ill from COVID. Will employers begin requiring proof of vaccination in order to avoid liability? Will you have to show proof of vaccination to get a table in a restaurant? Will the ultimate irony be that the group of people most likely to die from COVID — those 65 or older — will also be the group that can most easily reject taking the vaccine?
Will the fear of catching the ’rona be greater than the fear of taking the vaccine? What about ceding yet more authority to a government that’s already locked us down and forced mask mandates in the name of public health? Or should things go back to normal once the vaccine is widely available and it’s just tough luck for those who refuse it and then get sick?
The vaccine we’ve waited for has the potential to be yet another deep ravine in our already divided nation.
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