For friends and family who need assistance helping younger people understand the importance of vaccination.


Dr. Jillian Whidby Dr. Jillian Whidby, PhD

Why is the COVID pandemic still such a problem?

One of the biggest mistakes of the COVID-19 pandemic happened when it first began, when politicians (and some doctors and scientists!) downplayed the severity of the illness (1). Our politicians are great leaders and capture the attention of the masses, but most are not doctors or scientists and many are not very skilled communicators. In their efforts to protect the economy and prevent panic, they caused mistrust in scientific experts from the beginning (2).

In addition, this was the first time in the history of all pandemics that most of the world had access to unlimited media and social media, both of which give very loud voices to people who aren’t qualified to discuss complex scientific problems or may have ulterior motives.

The result has been historical political division with “epidemic” spread of misinformation and the birth of conspiracy theories around the world. This is preventing people from getting vaccinated and prolonging the pandemic for everyone.

Why is COVID so serious?

COVID is caused by a virus similar to the kind of viruses that cause our common colds (3). However, the virus that causes COVID is new to humans, so a planet of 8 BILLION people had no prior immunity or protection (4). As of this article, more than 800,000 people have died in the United States alone and more than 5 million people worldwide (5, 6).

The COVID virus also spreads through the air, which means you only have to breathe the same air as a sick person to catch it (7), and some of those people don’t even know they are sick.

Mix these tricks together on a very small planet, where you can fly thousands of miles in a single day, and you can imagine how a really impressive (and scary) pandemic can result.

Because COVID virus proteins (the “keys”) use a cell receptor (the “locks”) found on many cell types, COVID is far more dangerous than other common cold viruses (8). Although it usually enters through the respiratory tract (nose-mouth-lungs), it can work its way to other places in your body, including your heart and your brain (9, 10, 11).

Why some people get sicker than others is still difficult to predict, so there is no way to know what your experience with COVID will be like. Scientists are studying this very hard and learning more every day.

Many people (including kids) also experience long-term symptoms that change their quality of life for months or longer and make it difficult to do simple things like going for a walk, playing sports, or thinking clearly (12).

Why is spreading COVID such a big problem?

Now think about the other people you encounter in your day-to-day life, from loved ones to complete strangers.

If you contract any cold virus, even if it turns out to be a mild cold, what about the people you risk passing it to through the air? Are they in more danger than you are? Our grandparents, our friends who are fighting other illnesses that make them weak, and babies who can’t protect themselves? Lots of people don’t have the same options or the stable health that you have and must rely on others to behave in a way that helps protect them. Caring about each other, even people we don’t know, is part of being human.

It’s important to understand that getting even a mild COVID infection can cause economic problems (13). If children get COVID, they have to be quarantined and lose more time in school. Then, parents can’t work because their child must stay home and they might not be able to afford to lose that pay. It also results in staff shortages and closed businesses.

Spreading the virus is an even bigger problem for the unvaccinated, because they risk getting REALLY sick and often need to go to the hospital far more than people who are vaccinated (14). So many people are unvaccinated and susceptible to a serious infection that our hospitals are extremely crowded and understaffed and some areas are even short on ambulances. This is a dangerous situation because people who need the hospital for any reason cannot get the care they need (15).

Spreading the virus also allows new forms of the virus to develop, called variants. There is a more contagious variant now that was discovered around November 2021, called Omicron (16). It spreads faster than any previous COVID variant, especially in people who are not vaccinated. It makes more copies of itself 70 times faster than previous variants in laboratory experiments (17)!

What can you do to help?

Many of the protective measures we were taking last winter, such as public indoor mask mandates and indoor dining limits, are no longer in place to help control spread. So if you have managed to dodge a natural infection in the past year and a half, your luck is probably about to run out.

But there is great news. You can do many simple and practical things to protect yourself and others. Wearing a mask properly, opening windows, having outside fun, and washing hands frequently are all a huge help, especially when you combine them (18). Masks stop most of your respiratory droplets (coughs, spits, sneezes, even your normal breath) from getting too far and they work well! A KN95 is highly recommended (an article with FDA-approved options is provided in the references). You can also use inexpensive home rapid tests to make sure you are healthy before visiting high risk people or attending crowded gatherings.

But the most powerful and specific tool we have against serious COVID illness is a vaccine.

All vaccines in general have 2 purposes: 1) to protect a person from a serious disease and 2) to help prevent that person from spreading a serious disease to others (19).

To work the BEST, vaccines need to be widely accepted by almost all people everywhere. Vaccines aren’t perfect, but if most people get them, the risk to everyone goes down (20). Think about how the tide rises: all the ships in the water are lifted together. Vaccines work like the tide to give everyone a big advantage. This is why, when people cannot control their exposure to strangers or crowds of people (such as in schools), vaccines are often required to ensure the protection of everyone and prevent outbreaks of dangerous preventable diseases. You were required to get many types of vaccines as a baby just to be allowed to go to public school (21).

What will happen if I get the COVID vaccine?

We are fortunate to live in a wealthy enough country to have free and early access to the COVID vaccines. Thanks to government investment, the work of really smart scientists, and the participation of tens of thousands of trial volunteers, there are several vaccines to choose from and hopefully more coming in the future.

There are so many benefits to getting vaccinated against COVID.

  1. They are safe and they work great (22)! Most people experience a sore arm, a headache, or a tired feeling for a few days (23). But that’s nothing compared to how bad you would feel with a nasty case of COVID. You can get more details about COVID symptoms and vaccine side effects from your family doctor.
  2. You are training your body for what to expect when it sees the real virus, which means you’ll have personal ammo! This will make your infection much less serious if you do catch COVID and help you avoid those long-term symptoms. The vaccines also give you better ammo after you get a natural COVID infection, which makes the vaccine very helpful even if you’ve already been sick (24).
  3. If you’re vaccinated and then catch COVID, there will be less virus in your body (25), so it won’t be quite as easy to spread it to others and you won’t give the virus a free wild ride to make new variants.
  4. If you’re vaccinated, you might not have to quarantine as long if you are exposed but never test positive or develop symptoms.*
  5. If you’re vaccinated, you may also qualify soon for the booster shot that follows the first shots (26). The booster is especially necessary to for the best possible chance to prevent infection with Omicron.
  6. You will be able to travel more easily and enjoy activities that now (or may soon) require COVID vaccination, like eating at popular restaurants or going to concerts and shows.*
  7. You will be able to set a good example for others in your community about how to think like a team player and help overcome this pandemic for everyone.

Pandemics can be very unpredictable and can take a long time to go away. They rarely stop as quickly and simply as flipping a switch. This can be scary because many people don’t understand how or why this kind of thing can happen and how it can change the world so fast. Sometimes it is tempting to blame someone or deny the problem exists simply because it’s easier than taking responsibility. These are bad ideas. They make a complicated problem even more challenging to solve. Fortunately, living in the COVID pandemic is becoming more manageable with time, thanks to the very hard work of scientists and the development of vaccines and new treatments.

* Recommendations vary depending on your location and local regulatory authorities.

Some FDA-approved masks are listed here: The 7 Best KN95 Masks From the FDA’s EUA List to Shop Online | Health.com


Sources:

  1. Lie of the Year: The Downplay and Denial of the Coronavirus | Kaiser Health News (khn.org)
  2. PolitiFact | In Context: As Trump criticizes, a look back at Fauci’s early coronavirus statements
  3. Coronavirus (who.int)
  4. A novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and COVID-19 - PubMed (nih.gov)
  5. CDC COVID Data Tracker
  6. COVID Live - Coronavirus Statistics - Worldometer (worldometers.info)
  7. Covid-19 has redefined airborne transmission | The BMJ
  8. Understanding The SARS-CoV-2 Lifecycle & Potential Targets (covidviruslifecycle.com)
  9. SARS-CoV-2 Infects Human Engineered Heart Tissues and Models COVID-19 Myocarditis - ScienceDirect
  10. Mini organs reveal how the coronavirus ravages the body (nature.com)
  11. COVID and the brain: researchers zero in on how damage occurs (nature.com)
  12. Post-COVID Conditions | CDC
  13. Americans Are Struggling with the Mental Health and Economic Impact of COVID-19 | Commonwealth Fund
  14. Monitoring Incidence of COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations, and Deaths, by Vaccination Status — 13 U.S. Jurisdictions, April 4–July 17, 2021 | MMWR (cdc.gov)
  15. The pandemic has driven many Americans to delay health care : Shots - Health News : NPR
  16. Omicron variant genome evolution and phylogenetics - PubMed (nih.gov)
  17. HKUMed finds Omicron SARS-CoV-2 can infect faster and better than Delta in human bronchus but with less severe infection in lung - News | HKUMed
  18. How to Protect Yourself & Others | CDC
  19. Understanding How Vaccines Work | CDC
  20. What Is Herd Immunity? | Infectious Diseases | JAMA | JAMA Network
  21. Vaccines Required for School and Child Care | CDC
  22. Safety of COVID-19 Vaccines | CDC
  23. Possible Side Effects After Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine | CDC
  24. Science Brief: SARS-CoV-2 Infection-induced and Vaccine-induced Immunity | CDC
  25. Community transmission and viral load kinetics of the SARS-CoV-2 delta (B.1.617.2) variant in vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in the UK: a prospective, longitudinal, cohort study - The Lancet Infectious Diseases
  26. Pfizer and BioNTech Provide Update on Omicron Variant | Pfizer