A Shot in the Dark

05/04/2021

I have a close friend who owns a business that employs about 30 people, both part and fulltime. Because the company is in a healthcare business, those employees were qualified to receive the coronavirus vaccine by New York State back in January.

One evening in February, after my friend was fully vaccinated and I had received my first shot, he and I sat down for a couple of socially distant beers. I asked him whether or not all his employees had received the vaccine, and he told me that many of them had opted out.

That surprised me, especially in a health-related company, and I asked him what their reasoning was. “Well,” he replied, “it’s not one thing. It’s a lot of different reasons.”

Some people don’t trust vaccines, or this particular vaccine, because they don’t know what’s in them, and may even suspect that there is something nefarious intended to harm them, control them, or whatever. Some people think that you can contract the virus from the vaccine.

Others are afraid of side effects, or simply don’t like needles. There are people who don’t believe that they will ever contract the virus because they have some sort of natural immunity. There are people, believe it or not, who think that the virus doesn’t exist.

If any of you fall into that last group, by the way, I can assure you that the virus is indeed very real. Although I haven’t had the virus myself, a number of people in my family have, including very young children. All of them were very sick.

We can also dismiss the group that thinks that there is an ingredient in the vaccines that will allow some shadowy super-villain to take control of their minds. I understand that some people think that Bill Gates is somehow putting a microchip in the vaccine.

He’s not. You just have to trust me on this.

People who fear needles are in a different boat, as far as I’m concerned. Although I’m not afraid of needles I do have other phobias, and I understand very well that they are not necessarily rational. It’s not going to help these folks to tell them that there’s nothing to be afraid of, or that it doesn’t hurt or that they are being childish.

What might help is to steer them toward the one-dose vaccine, which may make the whole process seem less monumental. It could also help them if they acknowledge their fear to the shot administrators, who are experienced at helping people relax.

Then there are those who fear side effects. Their concerns can’t be entirely discounted, because there certainly are common side effects, especially among younger women. They often include fever, chills, nausea, body aches, headaches and fatigue, are usually mild and short-lived.

There are rare instances of more serious reactions, which could possibly be life threatening, though no deaths can be directly tied to the vaccine. In any group as large as the vaccinated population there are a lot of deaths, so it may not be possible to ever know for certain.

One thing we do know for certain. The risks from contracting the virus are more severe than the risks of side effects from the vaccine, and that should make it an easy decision.

That leaves the people who think they can contract the virus from the vaccine. Although that’s not true, their apprehension is understandable.

The history of vaccines goes back hundreds of years, and is rooted in the recognition that the body can build up immunity to a toxin or infection if it survives a nonlethal dose of it first. Buddhist monks in the Middle Ages were said to have given novices small doses of snake venom in order to protect against snakebite.

In 1796, an English doctor named Edward Jenner injected a 13-year-old boy with pus that he got from the hands of a woman who was infected with cowpox. It doesn’t sound like the sort of experiment that the FDA would sanction, but apparently it worked to prevent smallpox.

Two years later, Jenner started inoculating people against smallpox with a fluid he derived from cowpox. The virus that causes the two afflictions is called vaccinia, hence the term “vaccination.”

Since that time, many great strides have been made in the development of vaccines. Louis Pasteur, for example, produced a vaccine for cholera in 1897, and anthrax in 1904. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, we have nearly eradicated 14 infectious diseases through vaccines. Most of those used an altered form of the infection to induce an immune reaction, such as a live virus partially disabled by formaldehyde.

Sometimes those early vaccines were not safe by today’s standards, but the tradeoff was well worth it. Millions of lives were saved.

Now we are in the fortunate position of not having to make that call because we are not injecting the coronavirus into anyone, altered or not. None of the three vaccines approved for use in the United States use the virus itself to induce an immune response.

Without getting too far into the weeds, the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines all accomplish the same end through slightly different means. Essentially, they train the immune system to recognize the so-called “spike” protein that resides on the surface of the COVID virus. All three are extremely effective. (Editor’s note – after I wrote this column an issue arose regarding possible side effects of the J&J vaccine. Please consult your doctor if you have questions about which vaccine is right for you.)

Nonetheless, millions of people, possibly including some of your own employees, will refuse to be vaccinated for the reasons I listed above or one other. Some people will refuse simply because they feel that the government is trying to force them to be vaccinated.

It is not, and most experts agree that the federal government lacks the authority to do so. In most cases, states can mandate that certain employees in certain industries be vaccinated, and employers can require workers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.

I am the oldest employee in our company, and for that reason was the first to be vaccinated. The rest of the staff has been lining up for their shots in the past couple of weeks, which gives me hope that the whole company will be at least partially vaccinated by the time you read this.

Our company did not pressure anyone to get a shot, nor would I want it to. We don’t need to have face-to-face contact with customers or suppliers, and we are all spread out and partitioned off.

If I owned a different sort of business, say a restaurant (or a toy store), where there was extensive contact between customers and staff members, I might feel differently. It’s already hard enough to attract customers without being a threat to their health.

I’m not suggesting that you order your employees to get vaccinated, but I do think that a strong dose of persuasion might be a sensible prescription.

 

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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