(This article originally ran as an Op-Ed in The Fresno Bee's Valley Voices)
We’ve seen too many lives cut short by COVID-19 – more than 1,185 in Fresno County alone. January was our deadliest month so far. There were 434 people here who lost their battle with COVID. That’s more than the number of people who die in a typical month in our county from the top eight causes of death combined.
The most powerful thing one can do to stop more needless COVID-19 deaths is to get vaccinated – so I did. I’m urging you to do the same – as soon as you can.
I understand being skeptical of new things and wanting proof. I’m the same. It's part of my job as Community Medical Centers’ chief medical officer to carefully read medical research on any new procedures or medications we employ. I am confident this vaccine is effective and safe. Here’s why:
While the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine is new, it works similarly to other vaccines that have been around for decades. Here’s how it works:
Traditional vaccines use weakened forms of live viruses, but the COVID-19 vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna use just a part of the virus (its messenger RNA or mRNA) to educate your immune system.
mRNA acts like a blueprint for virus-fighting tools. Once your body memorizes this blueprint it dissolves the mRNA and eliminates it, like a Snapchat message disappears once it’s read. Your body retains instructions on how to recognize COVID-19’s spiky outer proteins and destroy it.
mRNA vaccines have been studied for 30 years. They create a stronger type of immunity, stimulating creation of antibodies like traditional vaccines, but also by stimulating an immune cell mediated response, which improves the vaccines’ effectiveness.
I know many vaccine skeptics question how fast the COVID-19 vaccine was developed. It’s understandable to have some suspicion, because other vaccines have taken years to develop.
But there’s three things to consider:
We have much better science and gene sequencing technology than we did even five years ago. And this vaccine benefitted from 30 years of previous research.
There was unprecedented international funding and collaboration among scientists –and support from world leaders.
Previous vaccines had long lags between creation, clinical trials and manufacturing. The COVID-19 vaccine was given emergency authorization to begin mass manufacturing at the same time clinical trials were being conducted. Double-blind randomized clinical trials were conducted with 73,448 volunteers of all ages; these are similar to numbers in the development of other vaccines.
Which brings me to my last point – safety. Here’s how safe it is:
Less than 2% of those receiving COVID-19 vaccines in clinical trials had a serious reaction; most reported fever, fatigue and headache after the second dose. Less than 0.1% needed medical care for a vaccine reaction.
Among Community Medical Centers’ staff and physicians, just 87 (0.8%) of the 6,139 who have been vaccinated reported symptoms strong enough to keep them home a day or two from work after their second dose, and only three had immediate severe reactions. All have recovered.
Severe reactions are extremely rare. The CDC has been tracking the 32.7 million doses given in the U.S. so far. There’s been less than 2.8 cases of anaphylaxis, or severe allergic responses, for every million Moderna doses given and 5 cases for every million Pfizer doses given. Other vaccines show allergic reactions at rates of 12 to 25 per million doses.
COVID-19 vaccines are new, but mRNA vaccine safety studies aren’t. A 2013 clinical trial of a rabies mRNA vaccine continues to gather long-term safety data – showing it to be safe and tolerable.
I volunteered to be among the first at Community Medical Centers to help collect data and also to set an example for my team. I experienced only mild arm soreness after both doses.
I’m relieved that my 96-year-old mother was able to receive her first dose of the vaccine a few days ago. I look forward to safely visiting her, hugging family and friends, travelling again, and seeing the COVID triage tents removed from outside our ER. But before that can happen, most of us will need to get vaccinated.
This is the most important tool we have in our fight against COVID-19 and to confidently reopen schools and businesses. It takes about five to six weeks to achieve full immunity. So when it’s your turn, I urge you to step up and get vaccinated.
Dr. Thomas Utecht
Senior VP, System Chief Medical Officer
Community Medical Centers