With a wintery chill sinking over Minnesota, the days when we can enjoy outdoor activities are fading quickly. It means when we gather with friends, it will be inside, whether in their homes, out for a meal, in high school gymnasiums, or at the local tavern for a cocktail. With those closer encounters, the chances of spreading diseases like the flu and COVID-19 increase sharply.
We can, fortunately, protect ourselves against the flu and COVID-19 with effective vaccines. However, too many are bypassing their vaccinations. With the threat of a deadly pandemic quickly fading from our collective memory, there is declining interest in getting vaccinated.
As news of the virus has faded from the evening newscasts and the front pages of newspapers, the urgency to get vaccinated has also faded. But Minnesotans are still dying from it, many needlessly because they were not vaccinated.
Based on Minnesota Department of Health data, there has been an uptick in deaths due to COVID-19. We are now averaging over three deaths per day. September saw 72 deaths. Overall, since the first deaths from COVID-19 in March 2020 in Minnesota, close to 15,100 people have now died due to the virus. American deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic struck the country in early 2020 is nearing 1.3 million. The elderly are still the most susceptible to the virus.
It’s been more than six weeks since the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the new COVID-19 bivalent vaccine for use in the U.S. But the latest data show that just 7% of U.S. adults and 2% of children have gotten the vaccine. Dr. Camille Kotton of Harvard Medical School says the vaccination percentages are “abysmal” and is urging increased public education efforts.
A national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey indicates that almost “40% of adults said they probably or definitely will not get the shot. A similar percentage of parents said they did not plan to vaccinate their children,” an Associated Press story reported.
Everyone 6 months and older should get the COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC says.
One of the challenges we face today in getting people vaccinated is that our incredible advances in medical research are met with skepticism and outright rejection. The Internet is filled with false information that finds its way to people too eager to find reasons to reject the “miracles” of scientific research.
Dr. Peter Hotez is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. He has been at the frontlines of fighting misinformation about vaccines. But he sees a deeper problem.
In his new book, The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science, he writes that the anti-vaccine movement is rooted in an ‘authoritarian antiscience movement.’
“People call (it) ‘misinformation’… as though it’s just random junk out there on the Internet or social media, and it’s not—it’s organized, it’s well-financed, and it’s politically motivated.“It’s become a lethal force,” Hotez told reporter Tanya Lewis of Scientific American magazine. “It’s the fact that [at least] 200,000 Americans needlessly perished … because they refused the COVID vaccine … and they were victims of this organized campaign.”
There are other victims as well, including the doctors and nurses who were overwhelmed with patients they couldn’t keep alive despite their best efforts during the height of the pandemic – many who had refused to get vaccinated. There are the public health nurses who were attacked. COVID-19 researchers and nationally-renown specialists in viral diseases continue to get death threats.
Hotez fears the potential misinformation and threats of violence will only increase in the 2024 presidential election year.
“I think this is going to start affecting all immunizations, including childhood immunizations globally. I’m worried about measles and polio coming back,” Hotez said. Schools and clinics are already struggling to convince a growing number of skeptical parents to get their children vaccinated.
“I don’t think the community of scientists by itself can solve this,” he said. “We’re going to need help.” While Hotez says that help has to come from federal agencies, it also has to come from local news sources that reach people in rural across America. Unfortunately, the tendency of rural Americans to be more politically conservative makes them more vulnerable to misinformation about vaccines.
Minnesota is one of seven states to have a current vaccination rate of over 25%. Other states, particularly in the deep South, have much lower vaccination rates – and higher death rates from the virus.
While the incidents of COVID-19 may be low in our area, our residents travel, not just around their hometown, but to the Twin Cities, the coasts, and out of the country where they are exposed to crowded conditions where they could pick up the virus and bring it home.
In early October, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two scientists whose research helped produce the mRNA vaccines that were instrumental in fighting the spread and ravages of the COVID-19 virus.
Years of research into mRNA’s ability to help our own bodies become the source of antibodies against disease was poised to be fast-tracked into widespread, effective use when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“Creating vaccines and having results from rigorous studies less than a year after the world discovered a never-before-seen disease is incredible, cutting years off normal development,” the Associated Press’s Lauran Neergaard writes.
“Abject giddiness,” is how Dr. C. Buddy Creech, a Vanderbilt University vaccine expert, described scientists’ reactions when separate studies showed the two candidates were about 95% effective, she writes.
“I think we enter into a golden age of vaccinology by having these types of new technologies,” Creech said at a briefing of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Tragically, it will only be a “golden age” for those who trust the science and get vaccinated.