With all the hubbub brewing around the near-term potential of an available COVID-19 vaccine, politicians are getting excited/critical, and people are wondering if this new shot will be a license to return to normal.
Will it? It’s a new vaccine technology, without the decades of safety data accrued by the boring vaccines against polio, hepatitis B, or measles. Which could have been said about those previously scary diseases too, before people were vaccinated, so at some point you have to pull the trigger, having faith in the knowledge that we don’t sell nearly as many iron lungs as we used to.
Before going any further, let me assure the easily-triggered that I have been pro-vaccine from the start. First, I never caught polio, for which I’m thankful. Second, I went to an actual medical school where they taught the history and science behind vaccines, and allowed me to reason that vaccines are, in fact, a good thing. Third, I just had my annual flu shot last week, even though I am not required to, but because I wanted it. I have heretofore been sympathetic to schools refusing admittance to children unvaccinated against diseases with a high degree of significant morbidity/mortality (not the case with COVID-19). Let me also firmly state, with a jaundiced (though not from hepatitis) eye toward the anti-vaxxers that I think they are nincompoops, and that anti-vax crusader Jenny McCarthy’s most valuable work was in the pages of Playboy. Got it?
So now I shall invite your ire. When this new miracle vaccine is made available, will I take it? I’m not sure. Will I recommend it? I’m not sure. This statement of uncertainty alone would be enough for some to howl that I should have my license revoked, the “cancel” equivalent in health care. By history I’ve already had the damn virus, have been exposed to a ton of it in the subsequent eight months, and haven’t even gotten a runny nose. Proof? No, but I like my odds. Honestly, I wouldn’t even wear a mask in the ER if I wasn’t required to. Would I recommend the new vaccine to one of my immune-suppressed family members, or to patients at similar risk? More likely I would, if they were otherwise stable and had not already had it. I realize this logic could be broken if COVID-19 turns out to be seasonal, with recurrent mutant strains in the offing.
The advent of a brand new, never-been-tried-moonshot vaccine is not a black & white decision, but it will be presented, and then forced as exactly that. The stumbling, mumbling Surgeon General who will be most famously remembered for flip-flopping on mandatory masking will push the pro-shot company line without hesitation (an aside, but why does the Surgeon General wear an admiral’s costume? Couldn’t they just get him an army uniform to hold all his fancy ribbons, or better, a white coat and one of those iconic doctor’s forehead mirrors of yore, with a full-color Seal of the U.S. on it, that he always has to wear in public? Just spit balling…). The CDC will likely be as decisive as they’ve established recently, but in the end will issue guidelines that everyone not known to be immune to the elements in this brand-new vaccine should immediately take it. And that’s where we’ll be in for trouble.
CDC guidelines have given cover to the hapless mayor of my little town to demand public masks, and plant nagging signs all over town, while local businesses knuckled under and demanded shoppers wear them. Our state, using CDC guidelines as their rationale, closed all the bars – but allowed bars in restaurants to keep serving. College football is now a virtual clown show, where masked referee’s huff-and-puff to keep up with unmasked players, who run to the sidelines on timeouts to get instruction from coaches frenetically pulling their masks down to speak, then pulling them up between sentences. The flight attendants’ union will likely still be demanding mandatory masks when a clone of Elon Musk opens up commercial space travel for the current generation being told it will be too dangerous to go trick-or-treating this year. Why go into all this rant?
The politicians and public health officials that first told us we simply had to “flatten the curve”, and then told us we had to stay locked down, and then told us we had to wait for a vaccine, are now back to flattening the curve – the PR curve. They dare not back off of their entrenched positions, which means that in the face of so deadly a virus (for which we do not know the actual mortality rate, ahem), a vaccine that works must be so important as to be mandated.
We could just recommend the new vaccine to those at-risk, the way we should have had them self-quarantine without overreacting and punishing the productive majority, but no… Various state and local jurisdictions – following CDC guidelines! – will bar children from returning to school unless they have their COVID cards; will their parents be in for legal trouble if they refuse to vaccinate their kids? Certain companies, made more powerful following a wrecked economy in a year of needless shutdowns, will demand their employees take the shot as a condition of employment. Place your bets that state health departments will attempt to force all health care workers to take the vaccine if they have any direct patient contact. The precedent has been set with hepatitis B, even though for most of us coronavirus will not present as nearly as great a threat. Restaurants, or Costco may ask to see your COVID card before entry, or, demand that you mask up. Fear of viral liability will be as bad as the real thing, with lawyers hiding behind every corner, intimidating public entities to play it too-safe. Imagine having to show your COVID card to the helpful TSA screener prior to boarding your next miserable, masked flight. If a bad side effect profile emerges, BLAMMO, the now-unmasked authoritarians will revert to screaming for masks and lockdowns, and …
…doctors will comply. We will not want to be seen as anti-science, and we will not want to be fired into the ranks of the unemployed, or worse, cancelled by our state medical boards. Medicine advanced reasonably, thoughtfully, building the science and implementation of vaccines that have helped billions, in a positive, compassionate manner. Now, with the past eight months as preparation, bludgeoned by a hysterical, ignorant media and a panicked populace, we have established our profession as health commissars willing to advocate for any “temporary” restriction of individual choice in order to “save lives”, no matter how many others are harmed in the process. Any of us not immediately sold on the unconditional goodness of the COVID vaccine if-and-when, will face ethical dilemmas that pit our medical judgement against our economic survival. Many of us will look at large swaths of the population for whom masks and six-foot bubbles have taken on a religious significance that justify screaming at strangers, and rationalize that it’s simply not worth the effort to educate, or counsel anything other than the accepted, mandatory herd “recommendation.”
No, I don’t think that the vaccine will contain Bill Gates’ nanobots, nor do I think it will be the Mark of the Beast. I am not at all saying there should not be a vaccine, nor am I saying I wouldn’t take it. I am predicting that we will not be given a choice, and will not be allowed to offer patients an actual choice. I am saying that by abdicating our responsibility to provide calm, rational leadership during the pandemic, and through the rush of events, we have unwittingly placed ourselves in the forefront of a major fight over the right of the individual to decide for himself what care he shall receive. If we roll over on this one, we set a terrifying precedent for the next health “crisis,” and our role in it.