Friday, January 22, 2021

How I Spent My Friday Morning

There aren't many advantages to turning 70, as I did three weeks ago, but one is that I am now eligible to try to get the coronavirus vaccine in the state of Indiana, and I did today.  I say "try" because it wasn't as easy as it should have been.  I spent most of the past week beating my head against the reservation website, which was simple enough but didn't work: I would find a nearby location (there are two in my small town), find what the site said was an available date, type in the requested information, click on "confirm reservation" -- and get an error message telling me that there were no openings on that date.  I called the 211 information and referral number and talked to two very nice and helpful workers, but all they could do was enter my information on the same website -- it didn't work for them either -- and then suggest I try again early the next day.

Then this morning I noticed some differences on the local page.  The county department of health, which had offered reservations starting in mid-February, suddenly reported that no reservations were available. The local hospital, which previously had no open reservations, suddenly had them today.  I grabbed one, the site confirmed it, I rode my bicycle over (about two miles - the department of health was much nearer), walked in, answered some basic questions, got jabbed with the Pfizer vaccine, made an appointment for a second dose in mid-February, waited fifteen minutes to make sure I had no immediate adverse reactions, and walked out again.

It all went very smoothly.  I've been to the hospital a few times since I moved up here, for lab work and other diagnostics, and the staff have always been great -- professional in the best sense of the word.  I wouldn't have guessed, to observe them today, that they'd been dealing with a major pandemic for the past year.  One of them explained that they'd starting out using both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but had decided to phase out the Moderna except for second doses because they had the facilities to handle the ultra-cold storage the Pfizer vaccine needs -- not bad for a hospital in a town of about ten thousand people; supplies of the Moderna are now going to smaller, more rural locations.

I also wouldn't have supposed, from the numbers of people they were processing, that there's any great resistance to the vaccine around here.  Maybe there isn't, but this is Trump country.  As Jake Bacharach tweeted a few days ago, though, "I'm sure there will be some genuine refusals, but as with abortion, many of the loudest moral and political opponents will rush to the clinic the minute they need one for themselves or their families."  If every spot on the schedule hadn't been filled, it was probably because of the flaws in the website, not lack of demand.

Twelve hours later I have a slight ache in my upper arm where I got the injection; it's no worse than the flu shot I got in November.  But then I've always been lucky with shots -- never had an allergic reaction, for example, or significant side issues other than a sore arm.

I'm writing about this partly for the same reason I write most of my posts: to process what is happening to me and around me.  But it's also because I wrote a post at the end of December posing some questions and expressing concerns about the vaccines.  I said explicitly that I am not anti-vaccine, and that I would probably get vaccinated when it became available.  At the time I didn't think that would be before spring or summer.  When I learned that I could get it now, I decided to go with it for two main reasons: it takes time to build full immunity, so the sooner I begin the process, the better; I hope I might be able to visit friends this summer with less worry.  The other is that the sooner we all start building immunity, the sooner we can see what result it will have on the advance of the virus.

Recently I got a daily New York Times e-mail newsletter dealing with the vaccine, and to my surprise and pleasure it backed up many of my concerns.  Here's hoping the link works.  The writer argues that the lack of honesty about the virus has not only hindered the struggle against it, but contributed to people's skepticism about all authoritative pronouncements (except those of the authorities they like, of course).

Early in the pandemic, many health experts — in the U.S. and around the world — decided that the public could not be trusted to hear the truth about masks. Instead, the experts spread a misleading message, discouraging the use of masks.

Their motivation was mostly good. It sprung from a concern that people would rush to buy high-grade medical masks, leaving too few for doctors and nurses. The experts were also unsure how much ordinary masks would help.

But the message was still a mistake.

It confused people. (If masks weren’t effective, why did doctors and nurses need them?) It delayed the widespread use of masks (even though there was good reason to believe they could help). And it damaged the credibility of public health experts.

This is basically what I wrote in December, as well as in previous posts about science, expertise, and the myth of meritocracy.  You can't really complain that the public doesn't trust you if you've been lying to them, but that's what experts in many fields have been doing all along.

Right now, public discussion of the vaccines is full of warnings about their limitations: They’re not 100 percent effective. Even vaccinated people may be able to spread the virus. And people shouldn’t change their behavior once they get their shots.

These warnings have a basis in truth, just as it’s true that masks are imperfect. But the sum total of the warnings is misleading, as I heard from multiple doctors and epidemiologists last week.
The uptake is that our guiding experts should be upbeat, and accentuate the positives about the vaccine.  Which I agree with, as long as the positives are true.  So, the writer goes on to explain that the 95% protection rate is "on par with the vaccines for chickenpox and measles. And a vaccine doesn’t even need to be so effective to reduce cases sharply and crush a pandemic."  As it happens, it's very unlikely that vaccinated people will spread the virus.  And so on: read the rest of the article.  The comparison to other vaccines was something I'd been wondering about, and now I wonder why it hasn't been stressed more.  It seems to me that the same public health experts whom we're supposed to rely on to inform and guide us are mostly not very good communicators, and that they don't trust their audience with accurate information.  But communication and accuracy are their job, and if they aren't going to do their job, what use are they?  I'm reminded of the days when doctors routinely lied to patients with cancer or other serious illnesses, which made those conditions even scarier than they needed to be.  Some of them, like Anthony Fauci (remember his fairy tale about vaccinating Santa Claus?), seem to enjoy lying to the public because it makes them feel powerful.  That's an occupational hazard of experts.

I'd already figured out on my own that it will still be necessary to wear masks and continue other existing precautions when I heard a doctor reluctantly say it on NPR a couple of weeks ago.  My heart sank at first, but it was important to know.  Reading this article made me feel better, almost hopeful for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic.  Sometimes the truth hurts, sometimes it helps.  So I'm writing here about why I got the vaccine, and how I'm getting along afterwards.  I'll follow up later if there's anything to tell.  Other people's stories have always fascinated and helped me; here's mine.