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Three vaccines against the COVID-19 infection are now approved, and over 40,000 people have received a vaccine here in the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, with some 24,000 fully vaccinated. Vaccination is continuing apace, with greatest emphasis on the elderly and underserved communities, where many of our COVID deaths have occurred. As the most elderly and vulnerable are served we will begin offering the vaccine to younger members of the population, especially those with chronic health conditions and those in essential occupations.
In discussions over the last three months, I have encountered people who remain uncertain about these vaccines given that they are still fairly new. I’d like to offer an explanation of why I trust these vaccines, and why I chose to be vaccinated myself.
First, in 2016, during my military career, I had the honor of commanding the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR). One of WRAIR’s missions is to develop and test new vaccines, so I have some familiarity with the process. Second, as a public health physician, I have watched with dismay the effects — medical, social and economic — that the COVID pandemic has had on the people of northwestern Virginia. Finally, these vaccines offer us a solution to this pandemic, and a return toward normal life. Testing, masking and distancing are still needed to control the spread of the infection, but only the vaccine will end it.
From my observations, these vaccines have been developed properly, using well established techniques and without cutting corners. The speed of development and delivery was unprecedented and was made possible by two decisions. The first was Operation Warp Speed, which dedicated several hundred billion dollars up front. This allowed for the setup of all lines of research as well as vaccine manufacture to be conducted concurrently, so that the usual gaps between steps in the process were eliminated. That’s why each new vaccine has been available for shipment just days after FDA approval instead of months or years. The second was the decision to accept a shorter final clinical trial. The three months of data that we have show very clearly that all three vaccines are highly effective, and were linked to no severe side-effects.
We don’t know if the vaccines will be effective for the very long term. There just hasn’t been time, and the only way to find that out beforehand would have been to put up with another year or two of the COVID pandemic, something no one wants to do. We do know that in the past, if a vaccine has caused a severe side effect, it nearly always occurred in the first six weeks after the shot, and we now have several times that much data with no such evidence of ill effects.
The vaccines work, for the short term, and probably for the long. Our best evidence says they are safe. Without them, we’d be asked to distance and mask for another year or two, and witness another million or more COVID deaths nationwide. With their wide acceptance, we can look forward later this year to a return of hugs, handshakes and smiles to Virginia — and to preventing most of the deaths that could have happened without the vaccine.
People with specific medical conditions and concerns should certainly talk to their doctor first, but nearly everyone should be able to get the COVID vaccine.
It’s now been over a month since I received my second shot. It still feels truly comforting and liberating to know that I will most likely never catch this virus, never take it home to my wife, and never give it to my co-workers or to people I meet. When you get your chance, I’d ask you to join me.
Dr. Colin Greene is the Acting Health Director, Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District. The family physician is a retired Army officer and Director of the Lord Fairfax Health District in the Shenandoah Valley. More information on COVID-19 vaccination is available at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/rappahannock-rapidan/, or by calling 1-877-VAX-IN-VA. Those wishing to register for vaccination should do so at vaccinate.virginia.gov.