By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer
“For he who has health has hope; and he who has hope has everything.”
The first step to encouraging our patients to take advantage of the opportunity and privilege of being vaccinated against COVID-19 is to understand and communicate some core facts on vaccine development, efficacy, and safety. Here are some examples that may be helpful.
Have you ever seen a home makeover TV show, where they build a sturdy beautiful home in a week? New homes typically take months to build. How is this possible?
- By having prefabricated parts ready to assemble rapidly. Don’t build everything from scratch.
- By pouring resources (workers and money) into the building process, and working long hours.
- Wherever possible, by doing different parts of the project simultaneously, instead of sequentially.
These same three steps have been the key to developing highly effective COVID vaccines with thorough safety testing:
- Re-purposing a vaccine platform that has been proven effective and safe on other similar infections, adapted to the specific genetic code of the COVID-19 virus.
- Getting up-front funding for the final product, allowing people and facilities to be re-purposed to produce the vaccine on a large scale, quickly.
- Do all the usual steps in testing a vaccine for effectiveness and safety without unnecessary delay between steps, WHILE large scale production is already going on, in case it works well.
Efficiency, while assuring quality. No corners were cut!
I heard you can still catch COVID after being vaccinated. If that’s the case, why should I get vaccinated? Do COVID vaccines protect against COVID infection?
The COVID-19 vaccines are amazingly effective against both serious COVID-19 infection (close to 100%) and symptomatic COVID infection (95% for two doses of the two mRNA vaccines, 72% for a single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, when available in the US).
Importantly, protection against asymptomatic infection is probably in the ballpark of 50%, so vaccinated individuals can still carry infection home to their family and friends who are not vaccinated. Because of this, it is very important to continue to diligently use masks, physically distance and avoid indoor gatherings with individuals outside of your COVID bubble. This won’t last forever. We need many people to be vaccinated AND little COVID to be circulating in the community before we consider easing up on other protective measures.
I’m worried about the side effects of the vaccine. Could I catch COVID from the vaccine? Can’t the RNA in the vaccine become a part of my own DNA, causing problems down the road? What about long-term side effects?
First and foremost, COVID vaccination cannot cause COVID-19 (about 30% of Americans believe this, so it is important to address this up front). No COVID virus was used in production of the vaccine. The messenger RNA in the vaccine codes for just one protein of the virus. This messenger RNA was manufactured from chemical building blocks in vaccine production facilities.
The messenger RNA is quickly digested by our bodies back into these building blocks, just after it instructs the protein factories within cells to produce the COVID spike protein in large amounts, so your body can learn to react against it in the future. Messenger RNA does not become part of your body’s DNA. Your DNA is safely located in the nucleus of the cell, away from the protein factories where the messenger RNA does its work.
In the past year, about 1 in 700 Americans have died of COVID. In comparison, the major risks of the vaccines are exceedingly rare: 4 hospitalizations per million doses of the current vaccine for either anaphylaxis or low platelet count (immune thrombocytopenia). Longer term side effects affect about 5-10% of those infected with COVID-19 (sometimes called “long haulers”), while no long-term side effects have yet been described for the vaccine (at least 42 million doses given so far, in just the United States).
Short term side effects of the vaccine include arm pain, muscle aches, headache, fever, and fatigue. These minor side effects are quite common, and usually last no more than 24 hours.
Framing the Conversation
Frame COVID-19 vaccination conversations with messages that resonate. Here are three ways of framing recommended by the Ad Council COVID Collaborative:
- Moments Missed. Reference things your patients miss the most. With many feeling COVID-19 fatigue, missed moments (especially human connections that we took for granted like visiting family and friends) serve as a powerful reminder of the ultimate end goal: vaccination as a pathway to the possibility of regaining these moments (don’t use the term “return to normal” though as this overpromises and may lead to unsafe behavior after vaccination).
- Protection. Emphasize a shared goal of “protecting yourself, loved ones and those in your community” (rather than “coming together as a nation”).
- Positive tone. Be inviting and respectful as opposed to demanding. Start with the assumption that the person would want to be vaccinated. If they say they don’t want the vaccine, then acknowledge “the choice is yours to make” which connects with the deeply rooted American value of liberty. Trying to harness fear of COVID can backfire, leading to fear of the vaccine.
In this pandemic, all of us in the health care community have the privilege and the responsibility to be public health ambassadors, for our patients, our families and our communities. As ambassadors, to be most effective we must be energetic, committed and diplomatic.