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The Waiting Game

January 14, 2021

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So now, in this new year, it’s a waiting game.

As COVID-19 has killed close to 400,000 Americans, we wait to receive the vaccines that cutting-edge technology has given us in record time to help stanch this awful pandemic.

Several million lucky folks – mostly health care workers and residents/staff of long-term nursing facilities – have already received their first dose.  Most of the rest of us anxiously await our turn, hoping we can return to a somewhat normal life by mid-to-late 2021.

My friends in the over-60 age group can’t wait to bare their arms for the injections.  A friend in Nashville texted me excitedly last week that she was getting her first shot the very next day.  And she did.

Here in South Carolina, though, the rollout has been lamentably slow, so slow that legislators fumed and top health care executives demanded last week that the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control loosen its guidelines to get things moving. DHEC and the governor finally listened and, as of Jan. 13, seniors over age 70 can make appointments to receive the vaccine.

Still, an alarming number of U.S. health care workers – who were among the first to be eligible to receive the vaccine – are delaying or refusing to be vaccinated.   Hesitant health care workers are contributing to the slow pace of vaccinations here:  South Carolina currently ranks 47th among the states in its vaccine administration rate.

This is not where we want to be.

Some health care workers and other hesitators apparently are concerned that politics influenced the development of the vaccine, although medical experts say the science was followed every step of the way.  Others are hanging back because of a lack of trust in the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, or they have concerns about side effects.

Overall, surveys indicate that about 40 percent of Americans are “vaccine hesitant”.  This is not good, as experts say that in order for the country to achieve “herd immunity” against the virus, upwards of 80 percent of us either must be vaccinated or already be immune from having contracted COVID-19.   This vaccine hesitancy may change, of course, as the Biden Administration takes charge and begins a coordinated educational campaign.  At the moment, vaccine hesitancy is highest among Republicans, people aged 30-49, those who live in rural areas, and Black adults.

Black Americans have ample reason to be skeptical of the U.S. health industry.  Decades of medical racism within the health system, which led to forcible sterilizations and the infamous Tuskegee experiments (when federal health officials for 40 years allowed hundreds of Black men with sexually transmitted diseases to go untreated in order to study disease progression), have left Americans of color understandably wary.

  A recent Pew Research survey showed that just 42 percent of Black people said they would get the vaccine if it was made available to them that day, compared to 61 percent of white people. The sad irony here is that people of color in the United States have the highest rate of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID. 

Women as a group are also more hesitant to receive the vaccine than men.  Why?  Women, after all, have been more likely to take the pandemic seriously and to comply with public-health regulations.  But countless women have stories about doctors not taking their medical complaints seriously.  “Traditional medicine hasn’t exactly done a brilliant job of earning [women’s] trust,” writes Arwa Mahdawi, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper.

Women’s health concerns “are often dismissed,” Mahdawi says.  “One study found women with severe stomach pain had to wait 33 percent longer to be seen by a doctor than men with the same symptoms”.  Moreover, women’s health problems are “massively under-researched:  there is five times more research into erectile dysfunction than premenstrual syndrome, for example, despite the former affecting 19 percent of men and the latter affecting 90 percent of women.”

In the United States, medical research trials weren’t even required to include women until 1993 because women’s bodies were considered “too complex and hormonal”.

I hope vaccine hesitancy declines as the year progresses.  The coronavirus vaccine has been deemed safe and effective by our best scientists.  If we want to get back to work and back to school and back to restaurants and movies and travel and safely visiting our kids and grandkids and friends, we need take the vaccine as soon as it’s available.  I certainly will.

Collins-Jan-of-self-1

Jan Collins is a Columbia-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).