This Thanksgiving looked much different than past years, with public health officials warning us not to celebrate with relatives from outside our immediate households and the possibility of an even worse COVID-19 surge. But there was still much to be grateful for.
Three vaccine developers have posted information about positive efficacy rates of their drugs, with two surpassing 90%. Doses may be rolled out as soon as Dec. 21. It could be the start of the return to normal, some whispered.
But the country’s reaction to that news was as mixed as its politics. COVID-19 vaccine development has been viewed with skepticism and concern since the beginning. Would a vaccine be safe? Would it receive proper scrutiny as it sped through the process? One vaccine with a 70% average efficacy rate from two shots at different times sparked questions about adherence to boosters. As if it wasn’t going to be hard enough to persuade people to get one shot.
The challenges facing the vaccine rollout reminded me of the struggle front-line healthcare workers have experienced during the nine months of the pandemic. Recently, a nurse in South Dakota tweeted that her patients were denying that COVID was a danger even as they took their last painful breath. She wrote that patients on ventilators tell you “there must be another reason they are sick, because they don’t have COVID because it’s not real.” The CEO of a South Dakota-based system faced backlash in mid-November after he said he wasn’t wearing a face mask because he had recovered from having COVID, making him immune and could no longer transmit the virus.
It’s easy to dismiss those people as few or simply driven by their political leanings. But these struggles will affect everyone.
On the day Pfizer announced that its vaccine might be rolled out in just a month, my mother, an educated, intelligent former entrepreneur who also happens to be fiercely liberal, asked me whether she should get the vaccine since she “felt fine.” In my mother’s mind, she might not need one given that we have been taking all of the precautions and have tested negative for both the virus and its antibodies.
“To me, the key isn’t just medical literacy—it’s the active dissemination of medical misinformation,” said Dr. Chris DeRienzo, chief medical officer and senior vice president of quality at WakeMed Health and Hospitals in Raleigh, N.C., when asked about difficulties he’s seeing in the public’s acceptance of a COVID vaccine.
“Heck I’m still trying to learn exactly how mRNA vaccines work. This is the fastest vaccine produced in human history, and we all want to be as sure as we can that the benefits of COVID vaccination will outweigh its risks for as many people as possible. And that’s exactly what’s happening. That said, ridiculous conspiracy theories like ‘Bill Gates is microchipping the vaccines so they can be activated by 5G’ will be responsible for literally scaring thousands of people to death.”
So in addition to dealing with burnout and the constant fear of putting themselves and their own families at risk, providers around the country now must take on the responsibility of espousing the need to get the vaccine in order to come anywhere close to the 70% rate we need to achieve herd immunity.
The odds are not in our favor. For the 2019-20 flu season, the nation only achieved a 52% coverage rate, and that’s the highest rate on record.
Hospital staff surveyed recently by group purchasing organization Premier say they don’t have the supplies to store and administer the vaccines. Some didn’t know the vaccines each require a two-shot series. Still others worried about having the electronic health record capability to record vaccination.
We have less than a month to prepare for the start of the end to this yearlong nightmare. That is something to be grateful for. But it’s also imperative to use this time to make sure we’re ready, as an industry and as a nation.