This past weekend, my wife and I hugged our oldest daughter for the first time in over a year. Afterwards, we ate lunch and enjoyed a delightful visit with her and her gentleman friend, holding hands while saying Grace, freely passing food, and sharing smiling faces with NO MASKS. The reason this was safely possible: all four of us are vaccinated against COVID-19.
Vaccination remains our best method to defeat COVID-19, but it is also our ticket back to some of those basic human interactions that we have missed for so long. It’s hard to describe how liberating it feels after a very long year, but many of you understand all too well. What we need most now, is for as many people to be vaccinated as possible, as soon as possible. We have encountered roadblocks, but there remains a clear and safe path out of COVID. Here is how:
First, Pfizer and Moderna are safe for all groups, so get vaccinated if you haven’t done so. While concerns have arisen around the Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccine (discussed below) these do not affect the Pfizer or Moderna shots, which use a different technology, and after more than 200 million doses, have shown absolutely none of the issues associated with J&J. So, if you’re uneasy about J&J, you can get one of the other two. Also, if you’ve had your first shot with Pfizer or Moderna, please plan to get your second one. Chat with your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure or have questions.
Second, even with J&J, the risks are very small. At last count, 15 women in the US younger than age 60 suffered life-threatening clotting disorders within two weeks of receiving a J&J vaccine. That’s out of about 4 million doses given to women, so the risk is around 1/250,000. By comparison, the risk of being killed by lightning during your lifetime is about 1/150,000, so the risk from J&J is very small, but it does exist. The association of this particular clotting disorder with the vaccine does not appear at the same rate in men (there is one possible case), nor in anyone over 65. J&J vaccine does offer the advantage of being a single shot, and it is effective at stopping the severe complications of COVID-19. Each patient should make an informed decision, and in particular women should consider whether they are willing to accept the very small but real risk of the serious clotting problem with J&J, or whether they should seek a vaccine without that risk. Again, talk to your healthcare professional.
Third, it’s easier than ever to get a COVID vaccine. As more people have been vaccinated, demand has dropped, while the supply has increased. A host of pharmacies are providing vaccines, along with many medical practices, hospitals, and your local health departments. Many are now offering open appointing on-line, and some are even accepting walk-ins (no Internet required!). Two useful sites are vaccinefinder.org, which shows most open-appointment clinics, and vaccineappointments.virginia.gov, which shows health department locations. Also, watch your local school, government, and health system sites; ask your doctor, call your local health department, or check out the TV, radio, or print news for your area.
Fourth, if you know of someone who is struggling to get the vaccine, is homebound, or is in a remote or underserved area, offer to help. Assist them with signing up for an appointment, or call your local health department for further advice.
Fifth, continue to follow COVID guidelines. Masking and distancing are still needed, especially indoors, unless you’re in a closed group (no one coming and going) where everyone is vaccinated. We’re heading toward the end of the pandemic, but we still have a right good distance to travel before we’re there. Stay safe in the meantime.
Most of all, just get the vaccine. About half of our population is still unvaccinated, including about 20% of the elderly, so this virus can still spread, and it can still kill. Every person vaccinated is one less likely to suffer or die from COVID-19, and one more person that can safely hug their family and friends, and enjoy the human company so badly missing in northwestern Virginia, and everywhere else.
Dr. Colin Greene is a family physician, retired Army officer, Director of the Lord Fairfax Health District (LFHD), and Acting Health Director, Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District (RRHD). More information on COVID-19 vaccination is available at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/lord-fairfax/, rrhd.org, or by calling 540.722.3470 in LFHD, or 540.308.6072 in RRHD. Those wishing vaccine appointments should visit vaccinefinder.org or vaccineappointments.virginia.gov.