As an allergist-immunologist who trained at Mayo Clinic, one might assume that I’m up to date on my COVID-19 booster vaccinations. However, I realized months ago that I was overdue for a booster; it’s been over a year since my third vaccination. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t stop at the pharmacy or schedule an appointment with my primary doctor. I was among the roughly 85 percent of Americans who had not yet received the bivalent vaccine booster, which helps immunize us from the two most common strains of the virus.
As the 2022 Christmas season approached, I began counting down to an important date that represented the culmination of years of hard work: the release of my debut medical thriller, Particles in the Air. It was almost upon me, but three days prior to the scheduled release, I woke up to debilitating muscle aches, a sore throat, and a splitting headache. My heart sank as I registered my symptoms. The timing could not have been worse. A rapid antigen COVID test confirmed my suspicions, and I followed the guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) by isolating myself in an upstairs section of my house.
By the next day, I had no energy, lost my sense of taste, and could barely get out of bed. After four days, I developed abdominal pain so severe that I considered going to the emergency room. As a doctor, my mind raced through possible sources of the pain, and I found myself wondering if I had developed a secondary complication from the virus. Ultimately, I just needed time to recover.
On the evening my abdominal pain began, I had my first forty-five-minute podcast interview. In fact, I had over ten radio interviews scheduled over the next two weeks. I was determined not to miss out on these opportunities, so I pressed on. I rose from bed only to complete my scheduled interviews.
My symptoms lingered for days … and days. I made it through those first few weeks, but it wasn’t easy. My abdominal pain persisted for over three weeks. I thoroughly regretted not getting the bivalent vaccine booster.
Tragically, many people have been through much worse, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic. The good news is that, like many viruses over time, COVID has mutated to become less virulent. Although the contagiousness of the virus has increased, the severity of illness has decreased for most people. Hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline. The CDC has recently released data indicating that the bivalent vaccine booster has reduced the risk of death in vaccinated individuals and decreased the risk of death 13-fold in vaccine-naïve patients.
There is a disproportionate amount of false information on the internet and social media regarding the ineffectiveness of, or major side effects caused by, COVID vaccinations. This helps explain the dismal number of people getting the latest booster. One phrase from my undergraduate statistics class has remained with me: “Correlation is not causation.” I’ll use the example explained to me at the time. On one side of an x-y axis are ice cream sales in a particular town, and on the other axis is the occurrence of reported sexual assaults. A statistically significant correlation between these two variables is found. Does this mean ice cream causes people to commit sexual assault? Obviously, the answer is no. There are often other influences at play, such as an increase in the number of people gathering and interacting in the summer months, translating to an unrelated increase in both ice cream sales and crime.
To determine causation, you must show that an increase in ice cream sales (X) came before the increase in sexual assaults (Y), that the correlation didn’t occur by chance alone, and that nothing else accounts for the relationship between X and Y. In other words, causation needs to be proven by scientific study. Scientific journals have a peer-reviewed process prior to acceptance into publication.
Before making a decision about getting vaccinated or not, take a close look at the source of the information. Sound recommendations are backed by hard science. And hard science says, quite conclusively: Do yourself a favor and get vaccinated. Each fall, I will most definitely be getting mine.
Jenna Podjasek is an allergy-immunology physician and author of Particles in the Air. Stay connected by following her on Twitter @JennaPodjasek and Instagram at @JennaPodjasekauthor, where she shares her inspirations, sneak peeks, and glimpses into her life beyond the pages.