As of today, my husband, father-in-law, mother, mother’s partner, and I are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 with either the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines. My eldest daughter has received her first shot of Pfizer. There is no vaccine currently available for my youngest, but I hope that will change by the end of May. The majority of my friends, as far as I know (because I try not to pry) are also well on their way to fully vaccinated, and those who aren’t have consciously chosen not to be.
I understand their reluctance. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are new technologies. New can be scary. I was terrified of this new virus for the past year, so I can’t judge those who are loathe to receive a vaccine without more data. Then, just yesterday, the FDA paused administration of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine because around six out of 6.8 million people who received their vaccine have developed Vaccine-Induced Thrombotic Thrombocytopenia (VITT), a condition where blood clots form in unusual areas and also cause a patient’s platelet count to drop.
At first, this news freaked me out, and to be honest I’m still not breathing normally. When Covid emerged, I firmly believed even one death was too many. I believe the same about these vaccines. I have, however, come to think of it this way: here is evidence that the medical establishment is watching those of us who have been vaccinated very closely. Here is evidence severe adverse reaction cases are being recorded and made public; patients are being carefully evaluated, studied and treated; and the medical community is as on top of this as they can be. Hopefully, as people continue to get vaccinated, more facts will emerge, and people’s minds will be put relatively at ease.
Then again, I don’t know if my mind will ever be fully at ease. I had a feeling of euphoria once my parents, husband, and I were vaccinated, and as my friends received their vaccines, but now I’m dangerously close to entering a downward spiral. I hoped all the news about these vaccines would be so positive vaccine hesitancy would be eliminated. I longed to map a straight line to normality, with enough people getting vaccinated by this summer that we achieve some form of herd immunity by fall. I wanted to be able to dismiss the possibility Covid vaccines would cause dangerous side-effects. I hoped one day soon we would look at this time of coronavirus and say, “Whew. Glad that’s over.”
But if there’s anything that’s been driven home after the past year, it’s the mantra of so many of my blog posts: “There are no guarantees.” Getting a vaccine utilizing new technology is a calculated risk. Taking a shot that has even a .000008% chance of causing a blood clotting complication within a few weeks of administration is a risk I literally just calculated by dividing the six reported Johnson and Johnson cases by the 6,800,000 doses of their vaccine administered so far this year. Walking around unvaccinated against a virus which kills approximately 1.7% of the people who contract it is yet another calculated risk (577,179 Covid-related deaths divided by 32,070,775 documented cases). And that’s without factoring in the virus mutating into more contagious and, perhaps, more deadly variants. Then again, getting into a car, or an airplane, or a train, or just leaving your house is a calculated risk, as well. The very act of living risks dying. The question really boils down to: who, or what, do you trust?
I mean, let’s face it—trust is hard these days. As I see it, the majority of people don’t trust the government, the media, the entertainment industry, the medical community, pharmaceutical companies, religious institutions, law enforcement, academia, businesses, fellow Americans who have a different political affiliation than they do (and some who share political affiliation, as well). It makes me wonder if we’ll ever trust anyone or anything other than our own minds?
Yet can we even trust those? My mind is not my friend. Left to its own devices, it will cognitively distort pretty much everything into some major life-threatening disaster. Psychologists call this “catastrophization:” presuming the worst possible outcome when faced with something unknown. Last year at this time, faced with a novel virus, I presumed that everyone I loved would catch this virus and either die or become permanently disabled. It’s the same cognitive distortion some I know are exhibiting in their fear of these vaccines—fears that threaten to engulf me, as well. It’s unknown, therefore we worry the worst will happen. I get it. I’ve been there. I’m perpetually one news report away from being there again.
So how do we navigate this type of cognitive distortion? According to a whole lot of therapy, we confront those fears. I no longer avoid thinking about worst case scenarios. I allow them to enter into my mind. Then I think about them, set a plan for what to do if they happen, do everything I need to make that plan actionable, and let it go. This is also how I make decisions. I think about all the risks, then decide which risk I can live with?
So, as I was evaluating my decision to get vaccinated, I thought: what’s the worst that could happen if I get this vaccine? I could have some kind of horrible, unexpected reaction today, tomorrow, a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now. And what would I do if that happens? Well, one would think that with 100 million people vaccinated already, and 100 million more scheduled before June 2021, I will not be the only one having the same reaction. So either the medical community will get me through that reaction, or I’ll suffer the consequences alongside most people in the country, if not on the planet.
And what’s the worst that could happen if I catch Covid? Well, seeing as how I have a clotting factor and at my current weight I’m at a relatively high risk for long Covid, I could end up at least debilitated in rather short order. I don’t think I need to go into a description of Covid long-term effects. We’ve been inundated with those for a year, and my pathetic little math example above lets the numbers speak for themselves. The odds, right now, still seem to be in favor of getting vaccinated. And as my doctor-husband says, “You’re already vaccinated. You can’t actually take it out of your body. Put it out of your mind. There’s nothing you can do.”
Am I, however, terrified for the friends who have opted not to get vaccinated? No, I’m not. I’m not walking around preaching doom and gloom and death for them, because a) they may be healthier than I am; b) they’re entitled to take their own risks; and c) I believe the medical community will continue to find treatments for Covid that will not only make it more survivable but will help heal those who have long-term side effects. I have also learned over this past year that the one way to ensure people will not do something they’ve already decided not to do is nag them and shame them.
Here’s the bedrock on which I frame my decision, though: I trust the medical community. Do I think they’re perfect? Nope. Do I think everything they do is 100% guaranteed? No. And anyone who does is, unfortunately, misinformed and perhaps a bit delusional. Researchers, doctors, nurses, pharmacists—they’re all human beings. They make mistakes. They can’t see the future. They cannot predict something with total accuracy. They would love to be able to make guarantees, but ultimately they can’t. Yet I don’t believe that anyone in the medical community is actively out to hurt us. I don’t believe they would inject something into themselves or others that they thought would bring about illness or death.
Could they be wrong, though? Sure. But I’d rather place my bets on the medical community being right than thinking a wild virus that’s killed over half a million Americans is perfectly survivable.
Of course, in any calculation of risk there’s not just worst case scenario. There’s also reward. And do you know what’s happened since I’ve been vaccinated?
- I’ve hugged my mom every day.
- I’ve hugged friends that I haven’t been near in over a year.
- I had dinner, at a restaurant, with vaccinated friends.
- I took my eldest daughter to a theater production wearing masks, with socially distanced seating.
- I went to an orchestral concert with friends, wearing masks with socially distanced seating.
- I’ve ridden in a car with vaccinated friends not wearing a mask.
- I’ve forgotten my mask at home a number of times (it’s okay, though, I keep extras in my car).
- I went to an outdoor reception with friends where we ate and drank.
- I bought way too much chocolate at Target.
- I’m planning a summer vacation. It’s between Tennessee and Georgia.
Getting vaccinated has allowed me to get back to some form of normal life. Granted, some of my friends never actually had much change for them with Covid, either because their catastrophization wasn’t triggered by the virus or because they’re not really out-on-the-town folks to begin with. For me, however, this vaccine has given me back my life, at least for now. And if there’s one thing I’ve come to acknowledge, accept, and appreciate, it’s that what we do now, right now, is the only thing we can be sure of. So I’m going to try to enjoy all the time I have left–however long that may be.