Faith Gong: The vaccine and me

The National Guardsman standing by the front door of our town’s rec center had a copy of War and Peace tucked under his arm.

He wouldn’t be able to read his book for some time, because the line of people waiting for temperature checks stretched into the parking lot. I was standing in that line on a sunny April morning, ready to receive my first dose of the Pfizer vaccination against COVID-19.

My fellow vaccine recipients were a diverse group: Judging by appearances, I stood in line with people of numerous races and occupations, ranging from teens to senior citizens. This may have been the most diversity I’ve seen in one place since moving to Vermont a decade ago.

After the Tolstoy-reading National Guardsman checked my temperature, I was ushered inside the town gym, which was filled with orderly rows of chairs and tables where dozens of National Guard members ushered people through the vaccination process. Cheerful music blared as I checked in at the front desk, filled out my health history paperwork on a clipboard, got my first shot, sat for 15 minutes of observation, checked out, and received my appointment for the second vaccine dose. The entire process took less than 30 minutes.

“Are you scared?” my daughter had asked before I left for the appointment.

My response was honed from years of parenting children who fear shots: “Well, I don’t think many people are usually excited about getting a shot, but I know I’m going to be OK, and I want to help get us one step closer to ending this pandemic.”

What I didn’t say was the phrase I’d been repeating to myself all morning: I’m doing this for my kids; I’m doing this for YOU.

The COVID-19 vaccine seems to have become another thing that divides people. According to various polls, roughly 18-30% of American adults — some of whom I know and love — say that they will probably or definitely not get the vaccination. There are a variety of reasons for declining the vaccine, but the main ones seem to be fear and doubt: fear over potential side effects, and doubt in the medical establishment or the risks posed by COVID.

To make choices in life is to put our faith in something. In the case of the COVID vaccine, we are either investing our faith in those fears and doubts, or in the data and health professionals claiming that the vaccine is safe and efficacious. As with the rest of life, neither scenario — vaccine refusal or acceptance — is guaranteed to be risk-free.

Why did I put my faith in the vaccine? For me, it was a version of Pascal’s wager. The 17th century French philosopher, theologian, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal argued that a rational person should believe in God: If God does not exist, an atheist stands to gain or lose very little, but if God does exist, belief brings eternal gain and disbelief brings infinite loss. (Substitute “God” with “COVID-19” and “belief” with “vaccination,” and you’ll get the idea).

Aside from the encouraging data on the safety and efficacy of the available COVID-19 vaccines and the advice of trusted health professionals, what I stand to gain from the vaccine is peace of mind. I myself am less likely to fall ill or experience the severest symptoms of COVID once vaccinated, but my peace primarily concerns other people: Once vaccinated, I am also 95% less likely to transmit severe COVID to my children (who won’t be vaccinated for some time yet), to their grandparents (who fall within vulnerable age groups), to the friend I want to visit at an elder-care facility, and to the community members I’ll interact with as life begins opening up again.

Are there things we may not know about the long-term effects of COVID-19 vaccinations? Of course; we’re still early in the process. But there are things we still don’t know about the effects of having COVID-19 — and some disturbing things we do know about the long-term continuation of symptoms like brain fog, depression and anxiety, pain, breathing problems, dizziness, and fatigue, even in young people with mild cases of COVID.

To put it in perspective, according to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), approximately 0.005% of COVID-19 vaccinations have resulted in serious side effects. In contrast, the U.S. case fatality rate for COVID stands at 1.8%, and a recent research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 30% of recovered COVID-19 patients (most of whom were outpatients with mild cases) reported ongoing symptoms 9 months after infection.

In getting the COVID-19 vaccine, I took on a tiny risk of potential, unknown effects to myself; in exchange, I have the peace of knowing that I am less likely to bequeath COVID — and its nasty long-term effects — to my family and my community. Not a bad wager, I’d say: I stand to lose very little, and I gain the opportunity to show love and respect for the lives of others.

We undertake reasonable risks daily, usually without much thought and assuming risks far higher than those of the COVID vaccine (see: automobile travel, childbirth, colonoscopy). Decision-making about this vaccine is complicated, I suspect, because it’s so new; much compassion and grace are required. A year of pandemic has heightened our awareness of the risks on all sides, and we’re fatigued from having to make decisions in the midst of uncertainty. I get it, but I will choose the reasonable risk that doesn’t have the potential to put others at even greater risk.

“You should save that,” my daughter said, pointing at the sticker on my shirt after my vaccine.

When I checked out at the town gym, I was offered a sticker that proclaimed: I Got My COVID-19 Vaccine! It was the first time I’d been given a sticker for getting a shot, and it reminded me of the I Voted! stickers given out at our polling place (also the town gym).

I did save my sticker, to remind myself of the gratitude I felt while participating in this historic vaccination process. Like voting, vaccination is good citizenship. Those people with me in the town gym — of many races, ages, and occupations — were willing to sacrifice their time and to endure a sore arm in order to make our community a healthier place for all. That’s how vaccination works: The more people who are vaccinated, the more protection there is for those who can’t be vaccinated — which, at the moment, is everyone under age 16. It was as if everybody with me in that gym was saying: Let’s do this for our most vulnerable; let’s do it for our kids.

That Russian novel tucked under the arm of the National Guardsman was written back in 1869, but it contains a quote that I hope will apply to this pandemic year: “We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness. There is much, much before us.”

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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