Mind Matters — Vaccinated Yet?

I am vaccinated against COVID-19—are you? This is not a question to shame anyone, but a question of curiosity. My husband and I are now fully vaccinated. In fact, both my adult children and my son-in-law are vaccinated as well. For the first time in over a year, we have dined outdoors at a restaurant with friends, who are also vaccinated.

Yet I know family members who refuse to be vaccinated for one reason or another. Some chiropractors disavow the need for vaccinations because they claim chiropractic manipulation of the spine should provide immunity.

Before I launch into the scientific response, may I note that my mother, who respected and admired her chiropractor and who loved her grandson, who became a chiropractor, would never have refused a vaccination. Why?

Because she witnessed infants and children dying of whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, and influenza in the 1920’s and 1930’s. My godmother and her brother both contracted polio in the 1920’s. I saw first-hand what polio had done to them—the lucky ones, not encased in an iron lung. Was I one of the kids thrilled to stand in line at the firehouse to receive the polio vaccine in the 1950’s? You bet I was.

So those are my anecdotal stories that give strength to my belief in vaccines. Sociologist Joan Retsinas reminds us that smallpox only disappeared because so many people got vaccinated. I remember in the 1960’s having to get a booster shot of the smallpox vaccine in order to travel to Europe. Smallpox was yet to be eradicated. Likewise, the only way COVID-19 will be eradicated is by large swaths of vaccinated people to achieve “herd immunity.”

Let us now look at the science and also why people may be hesitant.

People need honest communication and transparency about the safety and development of vaccines. Some groups of people may have more distrust of medical procedures, having experienced past mistreatment by the medical profession or the government. “Mistrust of the medical community among Black Americans … is often rooted in historical events such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which the United States Public Health Service misled and withheld treatment for syphilis between 1932 and 1972,” states Stephanie Pappas in the APA Monitor on Psychology (March, 2021). Furthermore, a 2020 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 20% of Black Americans personally experienced racism while seeking health care.

Now with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine distribution on pause because six people out of 6.8 million people experienced blood clots, there is concern that vaccine hesitancy will be on the rise. Dr. Helen Boucher, chief of the Division of Geographic Medicine and Infectious Disease at Tufts Medical Center, reminds us that 500 to 1,200 clots occur per million people who take birth control pills. 1,700 per million smokers develop blood clots. 165,000 per million people who have COVID-19 develop blood clots. Her point is that the risks of COVID-19 for outweigh the risks of the J&J or any other approved vaccine. (And many choose to expose themselves routinely to risks that also are far greater than the risk of vaccination.)

Boston Globe Columnist Kimberly Atkins had gotten the J&J vaccine right before the pause. Even though she is between the ages of 18 and 48 (the age range of women who developed blood clots), Atkins said she would get the shot without hesitation if she had to do it all over again. She says, “As a black woman in America I understand risk. … intimately acquainted with the severe anxiety that comes from the increased risk that an interaction with police could be … fatal …, from the abusive threats that come with reporting on racial issues, or from the outsized danger the corona virus pandemic poses to my health and well-being because of my race and gender … [this] last peril … made getting a COVID-19 vaccination a top priority.”

Atkins considers the pause in the distribution of the J&J vaccine “not a reason to doubt the drug, but a reason to believe in it.” Public health officials would agree. Rather than this pause contributing to vaccine hesitancy, it can do the opposite. Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, notes, “Overall, I think it is reassuring that with our safety surveillance strategies, we’re able to pick up such a rare side effect.”

Dr. Boucher, quoted earlier, hopes that people will be reassured that “safety measures are working.” She reminds us “we have vaccines that are effective and safe to protect you from a disease with a measureable and significant risk of dying. All the scientific expertise we can bring to bear in our country is working to keep the public safe.”

Psychologist Dr. Steven Taylor reminds those reacting to feeling forced to be vaccinated to consider instead “getting vaccinated is a right you have; don’t let people take that away from you.”

Of course, vaccine behavior also depends upon various levels of government and public health venues to make vaccine scheduling more accessible. Dr. Katy Milkman and her colleagues at the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania have tested various text message reminders for flu vaccinations. The best text messages that were most successful were two-part reminders that told patients a flu vaccine had been reserved for them.

As logistical hurdles are removed, more of us can safely get vaccinated. Whether we do it for “self” reasons (“I want to travel again”) or for altruistic reasons (“I want to visit my grandmother again”), do consider getting vaccinated.

Kimberly Atkins’ mother was vaccine hesitant. When Dr. Anthony Fauci, a medical authority she trusted, got the vaccine himself, she did too.