Four Colorado medical experts sang a united refrain at a panel Wednesday night: It’s understandable to have hesitation about a vaccine developed at a record pace. But the inoculations are safe and effective, they said, and represent the fastest and safest way to end a pandemic that’s upended the United States and killed hundreds of thousands.
“We all hate coronavirus. That’s our common enemy,” Emily Bates, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine, said at the town hall hosted jointly by the Gazette and 9News. “We are on the same team, as humans. We want to be done with this pandemic, we want to lose the masks, and each of us can make a difference on whether or not that happens.”
Bates was joined by fellow professors Ross Kedl and Lisa Miller, as well as UCHealth physician Kweku Hazel, in reinforcing what public health officials, Gov. Jared Polis, President Joe Biden and legions of others have urged for months: There’s a way out of this pandemic-driven reality.
Though the state has not reached the much-heralded herd immunity, nor has its vaccination rates picked up despite near-total eligibility, there are still reasons for celebration, the experts said.
Miller noted the significant drop off in deaths and hospitalizations among the state’s oldest, most vulnerable residents.
The two primary vaccines, those made by Moderna and Pfizer, have been shown repeatedly to be safe and effective, more so than inoculations against the flu and other diseases. The development of the vaccine itself, completed and available within nine months of the pandemic’s beginning, is a remarkable scientific achievement.
But that speed has led to some hesitancy, the experts said. That skepticism and wariness are understandable, they said, and shouldn’t be dismissed or scoffed at. Bates said that empathy was important “because it is hard for people to know who to trust.”
“Essentially when I hear these kind of issues with either hesitancy or just apathy ... the first thing I think about is one, can I listen to them, can I hear what their exact concerns are,” Hazel added. “The first is to listen, and then next is to provide them with the most accurate information that is available, to enable them to make the most informed decision for themselves and their family.”
It’s that second part that was the focus of the panelists. Bates addressed concerns about pregnant women receiving the vaccine. She said more than 35,000 pregnant women in the United States have received the vaccination, and “miscarriages and side effects didn’t happen any more frequently in people who get vaccines than they happened pre-pandemic.”
She also knocked down anti-vaccine doctors, whom the broader anti-vaccine community seize upon as evidence that even medical professionals are leery of inoculations.
“I don’t know anyone that I work with — medical students, graduate students, doctors that I work with that are on my floor that I run into — that is hesitant to get these vaccines,” she said.
What about fears about the speed? Kedl called the vaccine’s development “a world record.”
But he said it was the product of science and vaccinology improving on itself for years: The foundation of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been built for some time, and that, coupled with rapid manufacturing and former President Donald Trump’s warp speed program, explains how quickly the doses became available.
He and other stressed, repeatedly, that real-life data, gleaned after months of vaccinating people in the U.S. and elsewhere, continues to show the efficacy and safety of doses.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, millions of doses of which have been administered, did cause rare blood clots and a very small number of people died as a result of those clots. But now that providers are more aware of the potential for clots from that vaccine, experts at UCHealth have previously said, they’re better equipped to successfully treat the very few patients who develop clots.
“(Death) is not a possible endpoint that’s been identified,” Kedl said, when asked if Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had led to any deaths. “People who have been vaccinated have died. But in the same way that if you’re going to get into a car accident going to the library, it certainly isn’t the library’s fault.”
They tackled other common vaccine questions and topics: Will we reach herd immunity? Miller said scientists hadn’t been focusing on hitting a certain threshold as much as the media has; right now, she said, everyone just wants to get as many doses out as possible.
If we are going to reach herd immunity, the experts said, it’s not going to be from letting the virus ran rampant through the United States, the so-called “natural” herd immunity.
“There has never been an infectious disease in the history of humanity for which broad scale immunity has been developed that way,” Kedl said. “So really, the only way out of this, the only way to do any significant control on this, is through this vaccine process.”
Will there be booster shots, as some have speculated? Kedl said he thought the current vaccines will likely need additional doses months later, but he said he’d “be glad to get it when it comes around.”
“I’ll be happy to get a little bit better variant immunity,” he said.
Speaking of variants, aren’t the vaccines less effective at preventing them? Kedl said that new data shows doses are “driving a good response against” new strains.
And the best way to prevent variants from taking over further, he and others said, is for everyone to get vaccinated and blunt their spread.
“Every day that goes by that we don’t have people vaccinated, we’re going to see more people get sick,” Miller said. “We still have disease out there, I don’t want people to forget that. We still have a problem, and there’s still quite a bit of disease that’s circulating. This is urgent.”