We officially now have the vaccine and have begun to immunize the frontline workers at our hospital with the COVID-19 vaccine. And since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine emergency use authorization and a second vaccine from Moderna, there’s more hope for an end to the global pandemic. This specific batch of vaccines sent to our institution is being given first to the frontline workers in the intensive care unit (ICU), emergency department, and the medicine ward (including my own husband), where special COVID-19 teams take care of sick patients.
The arrival of vaccines is coming at an extremely important time. Hospitals across Southern California have reached their threshold, with the remaining ICU capacity dropping to 1.7 percent. At the last peak in Spring, we felt lucky as our own ICU still had a decent number of beds to spare. But with this recent surge, we have doubled the patients now admitted with COVID-19, and our hospital no longer has any available critical care beds. Our emergency department has been completely full every day in the last few weeks, limiting our resources to care for more sick patients or accepting patient transfers that need higher-level care from smaller hospitals in the region. With this high number of COVID-19 cases, the ambulance services have warned all hospitals in the area that they are also overwhelmed and at risk of collapsing. And with Christmas and New Year’s coming up, this will only worsen across the state.
So it’s about time for an extra special thank you to the thousands of people that were brave enough to volunteer for the multiple COVID-19 vaccine trials from companies such as Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford/AstraZeneca. Because of these research participants, multiple COVID-19 vaccines demonstrated up to 95 percent efficacy and overall safety. And although side effects tend to be minor such as slight fever or body aches, the volunteers had no guarantee that they would not become seriously ill. Because in every consent any person has ever signed involving the medical world, a usually low but very real risk is always mortality.
We all re-watched that Steven Soderbergh film Contagion at some point during the pandemic (and if you haven’t, now is probably the better time than when I did in March at the peak of coronavirus fear). The movie hero was Jennifer Ehle’s character Dr. Ally Hextall – the scientist who selflessly injected the vaccine into her own leg to test it. And yes, Dr. Hextall and her actions were completely fictitious. But just like the character, the COVID-19 vaccine participants had to anticipate minor side effects at best and death at worst.
Extra applause is needed for the minorities that were extremely courageous to be a part of the study. COVID-19 has shown higher rates of death and complications in Indigenous, Black, and Latinx populations, and these are the populations that have been historically underrepresented in trials and have had the most disparities in their health care. But minority groups actually made up 42 percent of Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine trial and 37 percent of Moderna’s study.
And I do completely understand the hesitation that a lot of people do have with the vaccine. And this is even more true with the Black community, who have to live with the trauma of their relatives and ancestors’ mistreatment through medical experimentation. It is very important for all of us, health care professional or not, to take a closer look at any trial involving our health and know that it truly is okay to raise questions. The vaccine trial was performed in just 6 months, so there’s no way at present to determine the long-term effects of the vaccine. And there’s the unfortunate truth that the older adults who have had the most complications and death from COVID-19 were not accurately represented in the trials due to many reasons.
It’s true that all medications, vaccines, and procedures can have side effects and that every patient will react differently. And yes, unfortunately, severe reactions did, in fact, happen during the trial. But that’s why we have these clinical studies that people selflessly volunteered for – to distinguish possible correlation from causation and test life-saving vaccines for the effects they can have on real people.
As we anticipate tens of thousands of doses being distributed to California soon, we will essentially be continuing the vaccine trial those brave study subjects began and can demonstrate that the vaccine remains safe and successful. I hope with all my heart that doses will also become widely available to anyone that wants a vaccine sooner rather than later. I myself am not a frontline physician, and a lot of other people, including essential workers, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions, need to get the vaccine before I ever should. But I do plan on getting the vaccine in the future if it is available to me.
The unsung heroes of this global health care crisis deserve a lot of appreciation right now. I know the coronavirus pandemic still has a long way to go, but because of these courageous COVID-19 vaccine trial volunteers, we are one step closer to treating it like a distant memory.
Karen Tran-Harding is a radiologist who blogs at How the Other Side Thinks.
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