When was the last time you thought about diphtheria?
Odds are, if you’re reading this in America, you’ve given this once-common, often-fatal illness such little thought that the question is absurd. I may as well have asked about the last time you purchased your favorite brand of washboard. The times I mention it to parents of my patients when I explain the illnesses I’m vaccinating them against are likely the only times they ever hear of it at all.
Almost nobody needs to think about diphtheria in the United States because almost nobody ever gets it here. People have the luxury of knowing nothing about it because, for decades, it’s been kept at bay by the safe, effective vaccine we have to protect us against it.
But when was the last time you thought about COVID-19? How many minutes did you get by after waking this morning before its all-consuming presence in our lives intruded into your day somehow? Perhaps, like me, you’ve had a few distracted seconds after leaving your car until you realized you forgot to put on a mask, and had to run back for it before going grocery shopping? (Those few seconds were lovely.) How many moments of your day have been left blissfully untouched by the pandemic’s reach?
The novel coronavirus has upended just about everything in our lives in some way or another over the better part of this last year. We are heading into what appears to be an increasingly bleak winter, with new cases and hospitalizations followed closely by new deaths climbing grimly as the days grow shorter and darker. Intensive care units are reaching full capacity across the country.
Yet in this dark picture we can finally see early flickers of hope. The first wave of COVID vaccinations are upon us, emergency use having been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration on Friday. Call it some kind of holiday metaphor, if you like.
The only problem is it’s a project anti-vaxxers have every intention to try and spoil.
When I get word that my turn has arrived—and as a so-called frontline medical worker, I may be among the first, albeit not as fast as ICU personnel, for instance—anything else on my schedule that day will disappear. Even within my layers of PPE, I will welcome the protection a vaccine would provide, as more and more COVID-positive patients come to my office for testing and evaluation. I can only imagine how much more relieved the medical professionals in emergency departments and ICUs who have had to face far worse than I have will be to get theirs.
Roll-out of vaccinations won’t be fast, and won’t be a magic switch to flip 2021 into being a year that feels normal when the ball in Times Square drops. But safe and effective vaccines against COVID are what will get us there eventually.
But we have lots of anti-vaxxers in this country, and while they might normally be little more than an irritation or sociological phenomenon to many, they now have the potential to prolong mass death in their communities and yours.
In fairness to America, which as a nation has botched the response to the pandemic to a truly world-historic degree, skepticism of the vaccines is not limited to our shores. Alarmingly high numbers of people are expressing an intention to refuse the vaccine around the world.
In part, this is understandable. The vaccines being permitted for emergency use are the results of a herculean effort in record time. Further, they were developed during the flailing final days of the presidency of a man who is deceitfulness incarnate, and while I am personally confident his desire to rush a vaccine to his political benefit had no effect, I can see why it would worry people. I hope these concerns abate over time, as throngs of medical personnel in the first wave step up to receive it, and reasonable people see these new vaccines are as safe and effective as the ones they’ve historically been happy to receive.
Unfortunately but predictably, some of the same people whose toxic blend of entitlement, ignorance, and fury has led them to eschew any and all restrictions on their freedom in service of halting the spread of COVID are similarly proclaiming they’ll never get the vaccine, either. And, of course, for people determined to refuse any shots whatsoever, this is just one more disease in the long list they’ve decided to let other people be responsible for protecting them against.
Toss another shrimp on the infectious disease barbie.
The (correct) saying about vaccines is that they’re a victim of their own success. They’ve worked so well for so long that nobody really understands that the diseases they protect against are still potential threats. It’s why we still have outbreaks of preventable diseases from time to time, much to my ceaseless frustration.
But we don’t even have the luxury of separation from COVID that we have from diphtheria or polio or any other of the illnesses vaccines have largely freed us from. It’s still right here, filling up hospitals and demoralizing medical professionals and making it an act of heroism to work in a grocery store. It’s still right here, closing our schools and crushing the performing arts and keeping me from being able to smile at my patients. It’s still here, dominating the news and pervading every waking moment of everyone’s day. It isn’t isolated in some far-flung corner of the world for people here to ignore, or a few neighborhoods of a city, or some allegedly arcane demographic group. It’s literally in our faces every day.
If the toll COVID has taken isn’t enough reason for people to get the vaccine, nothing will ever be. In the meantime, those who refuse the vaccine stand in the way of reaching sufficient communal immunity for everyone to be protected. By allowing themselves to remain a vulnerable population where the virus can continue to spread, they undermine the public health of all of us.
As the pandemic presses in on all sides, the release valve is finally coming within reach, but too many people are hell-bent on keeping it clamped shut. I can only hope that there are enough of us eager to receive the vaccine to force it open anyway.