Op/Ed

Eric Davis: Vaccines and promoting vaccines

More than 5,000 Vermonters have already received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Another 21,000 doses of the vaccine have arrived in Vermont, and the supply will ramp up in the weeks ahead.
The priority now is to vaccinate persons who work in health care, and the residents and staff at long-term care facilities. Once these groups have received two doses of the vaccine, the program will focus on other higher-risk sectors of the population. This group is likely to include people over 75, those with underlying medical conditions, and additional groups of key workers who are in frequent contact with the public.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine has said that most Vermonters who are covered by Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance should be able to receive their vaccinations through their primary care providers. State officials have said Vermonters should not try to schedule appointments to be vaccinated. Providers will reach out to their patients when their priority group in the vaccination schedule has been reached.
Dr. Anthony Fauci and other medical experts have said that “herd immunity” will likely be attained once 70% to 90% of the population has been vaccinated. Under current plans, there should be enough vaccine supply available to reach this target sometime in the summer.
One of the major questions about the vaccine rollout is whether, once the immunization program begins distribution to the general population, enough people will actually be vaccinated to reach the goal of herd immunity.
Recent polls indicate that more people say they will be vaccinated than was the case a few months ago. However, the percentage who say they will take the vaccine as soon as it is available — somewhere between 50% and 70%, depending on the poll — is lower than the numbers needed to achieve herd immunity.
One of the biggest challenges for public health officials in the months ahead will be convincing people to be vaccinated as soon as possible. This challenge involves overcoming several different types of concerns and, in some instances, misinformation.
First, officials must stress that none of the vaccines currently in use or under development in the United States uses the live virus that causes COVID-19. Rather, the vaccines are designed to stimulate the body’s immune system to recognize and combat the COVID-19 virus.
In some instances, this process of stimulating the immune system causes side effects, such as muscle aches or fever, which almost always go away within a few days. Part of the vaccine education program will involve stressing that people need to receive two doses in order to develop the highest level of immunity. Even if they have side effects from the first dose, recipients should definitely come back for the second dose a few weeks later.
Second, the public health community must combat the misinformation about the vaccine that is spreading in some parts of social media. Some of these false statements are being put forward by long-time anti-vaccination activists, such as claims that the COVID-19 vaccines contain toxins, or that vaccines cause autism.
Some of the most virulent anti-vaccine misinformation can be found on some of the same social media and Web sites that amplify Donald Trump’s false statements that Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election was the result of massive fraud, and that Trump really won in a landslide. Some of these sites claim that the government encouraging vaccination is a form of tyranny, or that the vaccination program is an underhanded effort by Bill Gates and others in big tech to control the minds of the American people.
Polls show that self-identified Republicans are less likely to want to be vaccinated soon than self-identified Democrats and independents. One of the best things that President Trump could do before he leaves office in three weeks would be to be publicly vaccinated and convince his followers to be vaccinated as well.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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