A Front Line Covid ER Doctor & A Vaccine Hesitant Intellectual Answer The Question, “Should Front Line Health Care Workers Get Vaccinated Now?”

I’m having a hard time staying patient with people who won’t cooperate with public health guidelines these days.  While many of the debates surrounding masks, stay at home orders, social distancing, and vaccination are abstractions for people with a lot of privilege, my circle of friends, family, and clients is full of front line Covid doctors and nurses for whom this pandemic is not an abstraction. I’m talking several times a week to a front line Covid doctor friend of mine (he wants to stay anonymous because he could get fired for expressing his point of view, but he gave me permission to share it with you all). Let’s call him Sean. Since I’m no longer practicing medicine, listening to Sean helps me take the temperature of what front line Covid health care workers are actually experiencing. I trust what Sean tells me more than I trust anything in the media, because I know he has no reason to lie, exaggerate, or twist the truth to me.

This week, Sean texted me in distress because he was watching a person with kidney failure die because there wasn’t a bed to get him dialysis. He said, “Lissa, this doesn’t happen. People who need dialysis don’t die. They get dialysis.” He felt distraught watching this treatable patient go untreated, all because Americans won’t comply with public health guidelines to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed.

He said, “Normally we’d just transfer patients when we get this full, but nobody is accepting transfers because they’re full too. I’ve never felt more helpless.” He spent all day advocating for this dying man and, by talking directly to doctors in other hospitals and begging for help, he finally found this man a dialysis machine. He told me, “We got lucky this time, but we’re entering disaster medicine territory now and it’s only going to get worse.”

I hear stories like this, yet my friends who are vaccine-hesitant continue to take the position that the vaccine will be more dangerous than the pandemic. This makes no sense to me, given what I’m hearing about on the front lines. Another front line Covid ICU doctor friend of mine invited me to ask any vaccine-hesitant person to come spend one hour with him in a Covid ICU. His rage at those who won’t comply with public health guidelines has the flavor for me of someone traumatized in the past, maybe by parents who should have protected him as a child but didn’t. Now he deserves to be protected by the public when he’s risking everything to treat Covid ICU patients, yet a large proportion of the public is having a fit because they don’t want to wear a piece of cloth over their faces when they grocery shop. He’s understandably incensed, and I just want to hug him. He says he feels gaslit by the public, like people who have no idea what they’re talking about telling him Covid isn’t so bad. He’s like “Really asshole? Come on rounds with me- and make sure you don’t wear a mask.”

Vaccine Hesitancy

My cousin is a front line Covid nurse practitioner, so she’s one of the first to have the opportunity to get the Covid vaccine. Because I hang out with a lot of alternative medicine practitioners and people in the wellness industry who have a lot of distrust in conventional medicine, I started asking some of my vaccine-hesitant friends how they would advise my cousin, just because I’m trying to understand how they think. Should she get the Covid vaccine tomorrow, or should she turn it down?

One of my very smart Yale graduate vaccine-hesitant friends said, “I would say to your cousin, if you value the work you do and won’t be allowed to go to work without being vaccinated, then do it, even though it could cause long term side effects. Risk minimization isn’t the only important thing in life. Service is just as important. However, let us be absolutely clear that we DO NOT KNOW if these vaccines are effective in the long term, or safe. So for public health policy, I think it is foolhardy to vaccinate hundreds of millions or several billion people with a new technology that has had side effects, some severe, even among healthy volunteers, and which has scientifically plausible pathways for harm.”

He then went on to say, “I would say that if you are concerned about the unproven vaccine and have the option not to take it, then first recognize that the actual risk that you will die or have long haul symptoms is very low. This isn’t Bubonic Plague. To further reduce your risk, let’s devote even one-tenth the research we do on pharmaceuticals to herbal and other medicine that people in other places find effective in treating Covid. He then wrote a long and well thought out essay on alternative medicine treatments for Covid, which had some validity and which I agreed with in part, even while I felt like he wasn’t getting the urgency of turning this pandemic around.

I told him I agree that we need to invest in researching natural and holistic treatments for all diseases, as well as Covid. I agree that we need to reform the pharmaceutical industries and get the corporate profit out of public health. But it’s too late for that right now. At 300,000 deaths in the US and 1.5 million worldwide, we’re hemorrhaging humans. I asked him what he would suggest as an alternative to mass vaccination at this point in the pandemic, when we missed the chance to do this better (like Taiwan did) because of absolutely horrific leadership in the US.

He said, “For immediate public policy I would say quarantine the sick (not the well), get money out of medicine so that we can actually know what works, implement the treatments that will be easily visible outside the shroud of money, and accept that death is a part of life. Over a longer-term, do real safety testing on vaccines, which has never really been done.”

I wound up scratching my head and thinking that sending his advice to my cousin on the front lines would do nothing but confuse her. His answer reeked of white male privilege. He’s really not offering a public health solution. He’s only deconstructing the current plan and writing off the value of real human beings with “accept that death is a part of life.” How is this navel-gazing and intellectualizing about better funding for natural and holistic disease treatments helpful to the public right now when we’ll all be faced with making a choice about the Covid vaccine soon and my cousin has to decide tomorrow?

I agreed with my friend that the health care system needs massive reform. I also argued that we don’t have time for that in this moment! Reforming conventional medicine (which I’ve devoted the past decade to caring about) is a long term solution. Right now, we need an emergency solution because we’re hemorrhaging humans. Telling my cousin that we need to invest more money in researching alternative medicine and getting the profit out of Big Pharma is like telling someone who comes into the ER bleeding that they should improve their diet or quit drinking alcohol to reduce their risk of dying. A bleeding patient needs blood. A country hemorrhaging humans needs mass vaccination. I simply don’t see another solution.

From what I can tell, we missed the boat for prevention. We can still do our best to optimize prevention on a personal level- staying home if we can, washing our hands, wearing masks, social distancing, eating well, treating our trauma so our nervous systems can respond better to infections, getting enough sleep, drinking our green juice, meditating more, taking supplements, moving our bodies. I’m all for that, but I also recognize that the ability to do such things is not equally available to everyone in my country and that some things, like green juice and the affluence to afford certain supplements and the ability to shelter at home, are part of my privilege.

My white male cis-gender,  heterosexual, working-from-home vaccine-hesitant friend’s point of view reeks of privilege at the extreme. To suggest that we should just accept the death toll of an ongoing pandemic rather than incur the real risk of a vaccine rushed to market seems cruel and lacking in all empathy to me. Yes, I agree that there will be side effects and risks that we may not discover for some time. But from what I can figure now, the only way to stop hemorrhaging humans is to vaccinate as many people as are willing to take the risk. It’s my opinion (and I could get proven wrong) that the risks of mass vaccination will be less than the deaths and long term sequelae from Covid. If I were on the front lines right now and couldn’t be safely sheltered at home the way I am, I’d definitely rather get the vaccine than get Covid from what we know so far. My oldest friend from my Northwestern days is a stay home Mom of three. She’s my age, previously healthy, with no preexisting conditions, and she got Covid in March. She has not recovered and may have permanent heart damage from the myositis she got during her acute Covid infection. All these months later, she still has zero exercise tolerance and can hardly get out of bed. To those who say Covid is not Bubonic Plague, yes, that’s true, but it’s also true that Covid is no joke.

The Vaccine View From The Front Lines

I asked Sean, my front line ER doctor friend (who is also an energy healer and uses his Sacred Medicine on ER patients) what he thought about my vaccine-hesitant friend’s point of view. Sean said that he agreed that we should be investing more money in testing treatments like Ivermectin, Vit C, D, Zinc, and Aspirin.  He said there are a number of well-publicized protocols that call for such prescriptions and he has made his hospital aware of these protocols and is using them himself. Like me, he is also cautious about a vaccine that we have only two months of safety data on.

Sean said,:

“Undoubtedly, we will find there are significant severe side effects, though possibly rare, down the line.  Due to the significant negative view towards these rapidly developed vaccines, I believe the media is doing all it can to paint a positive picture.  This new mRNA vaccine literally gets into our cells and uses our ribosomes to create a surface Covid protein (the “spike” protein). Does this process ever turn off?  Do we keep making the protein forever?  What are the implications of having our bodies produce a viral protein forever?  The theory is that those cells making the spike protein themselves are killed by the body.  It’s a theory, so let’s hope it’s true. 

For me, the Pfizer vaccine is being offered this week in my hospital.  I’m doing my research.  My father nearly died from Guillain Barre, a neurological disease like polio, from getting the swine flu vaccination.  He was paralyzed from the neck down.  This is a known side effect of swine flu vaccinations.  There are case studies linking Covid to Guillain Barre, though I think the risk of getting it from the mRNA vaccine are low.

The one issue I have with your vaccine-hesitant friend’s argument is that Covid is not to be downplayed.  It’s not the Bubonic Plague, but he has not seen what I am seeing in the ER.  Its’ bad, really bad, and the long term effects are just now being seen.  So for me, I’m feeling that the risk of vaccination is lower than the risk of severe illness and long term effects of the virus.

At-risk groups for vaccination side effects such as those with prior anaphylactic reactions are being identified.  From a utilitarian standpoint, as with all vaccinations, people will undoubtedly be hurt by this vaccination but the far majority will benefit.  Since myself and your cousin are on the front line, at this point it is looking like the vaccine is a better option than getting Covid.  Keep in mind that we are being exposed to multiple strains of Covid on every shift, I will get the vaccine and I would advise your cousin to do so as well.”

Should You Get The Vaccine?

My cousin decided on her own to get the vaccine, which is optional for her at this point and not yet being mandated at her hospital. I told her that I support her decision, as does my front line doctor friend. I told her that if I were in her shoes, I would get the vaccine. She felt comforted to have that validation.

What should YOU do? I can’t answer that question for any individual. But I would say that if you care about rallying together as a nation to stop the hemorrhage of real human beings who are people’s parents and grandparents and loved ones, who still have value and whose deaths could have been avoided if we had more decisive leadership and more cooperative and caring citizens willing to make sacrifices and take risks for the public good, then get vaccinated. I’ve decided that by the time the vaccine is offered to me (which may not be until summer,) I will accept it with gratitude, assuming we haven’t found it to be riskier than Covid by then.

If you’re curious to do more of your own research about the vaccine, Sean suggested the following resources:

Pfizer vaccine paper just released this week

Covid Vaccine deep dive

mRNA vaccine