Under the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), the pharmaceutical industry has delivered — in record time — two vaccines with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Johnson & Johnson and Novavax have released promising efficacy data from their phase 3 clinical trials. Immunizing health care workers and those living in long-term care facilities was slower than expected, largely due to the logistics of getting people vaccinated. The vaccine supply chain is now beginning to show some structure, with the expectation that there will be ample supply and capacity to immunize everyone who wants to be immunized by the summer.
Immunizations of high-profile people like Anthony Fauci and Vice President Harris were showcased as public events, demonstrating the safety of the vaccine and encouraging people to roll up their sleeves and “get the shot.” Yet, skepticism and reluctance persist, at least in pockets of the population.
It remains critically important to listen carefully to those who have concerns. Sometimes, the reasons for skepticism may be surprising — but also easy to address.
So, are there good reasons why a person should not be immunized? The top excuses being heard:
Too risky. “With the rapid development of these vaccines, is there a chance that something went wrong?” some people wonder. But, since the EUAs, millions of people have been immunized with few adverse effects (an allergic reaction occurred at remarkably low rates after the Pfizer vaccine). Moreover, no one has died from the vaccine, while many have died pre-vaccine from COVID-19. Many more will be vaccinated in the coming months as the vaccines become widely available to the general population. Very encouraging safety data is accumulating, putting to rest the “too risky” concern.
No trust. “Why should a vaccine paid for by the federal government and developed by the pharmaceutical industry be trusted?” some people ask. If a person cannot trust anyone, how can they eat food purchased at a grocery store, which was produced, packaged and shipped by people they will never meet? How about flying, which requires one to trust the people who maintain the airplanes, the people who fly the airplanes and the people who manage air traffic control that safely guides airplanes through the air space? Trust is an integral part of a complex society. Without it, society cannot function.
No need. “Why waste taxpayer dollars on a vaccine that serves no useful purpose?” others ask. The simplest way to measure the impact of COVID-19 is to look at the number of deaths in the United States in 2019 and compare that number to 2020, all of which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks and reports. In 2019, around 15,000 more people died compared to 2018. This is in line with an estimated population increase of just over 1 million. During the nine-month period beginning March 1, 2020, more than 350,000 more people died compared to the same period in 2019. This number projects to over 500,000 through February 2021. The cause of such deaths is debatable, but the quantity is indisputable. Vaccines could have prevented many such deaths.
Too young and healthy. “COVID-19 only impacts older people, or people with underlying health conditions,” is often heard. Once again, the data tells a different story. Comparing deaths during the same nine-month period beginning March 1 in both 2019 and 2020, broken down by age and gender, every person over 15 years of age had a statistical increase in their odds of death. This means that for people over 15 years of age, their odds of dying in 2020 were higher than in 2019. The data is telling.
Whether or not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 represents a personal choice. However, if people are to make informed personal choices, they should have access to reliable data that can inform their choices. Frothy emotional appeals serve no useful purpose.
When our turns came up — based on the risks, trust in the process, societal and personal needs, and our ages and conditions — we chose to be immunized. So should you.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D,, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based assessment to evaluate and inform public policy and public health.
Janet A. Jokela, MD, MPH, is the acting regional dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign, and she is an internal medicine and infectious disease physician.