Leaders need to stand on the side of science

Requiring vaccinations is the way to beat COVID

AS PHYSICIANS on the frontlines of the COVID pandemic, we lived through the dangers, worries, and devastation of what COVID did to not only our patients, but also our health system. Despite not knowing if our personal protection equipment worked, we spent additional time in COVID patients’ rooms to ensure that our dying patients’ last wishes were met. This meant helping them set up video calls with family or just being present so that they did not die alone.

Beyond the toll to our patients, we all saw friends and colleagues not only critically ill from the virus, but also critically ill from the hopelessness of not being able to do more to treat our dying patients. Some even took their own lives.

Over the past 18 months, as a medical community, we have learned a lot about COVID. It was one of the most innovative and creative times in our lifetimes – a global renaissance of scientific and medical discovery with a singular focus on COVID.  By one count, there were over 200,000 articles about COVID published in 2020.  Also, who knew we could track COVID through sewage waste?

Regardless of all this research, overall advancements in COVID treatments seemed to have fallen short.  There is no magic bullet to treat COVID once you get sick from it. At best, our treatments will slightly improve your chances of surviving this disease.

While we might not have a magic bullet to treat COVID illness, we do have one to prevent all this pain and heartache – vaccines.  Impressively, the scientific community rapidly created multiple vaccines that significantly protect us from COVID infection. These vaccines work and are safe. Over 4.5 billion doses of COVID vaccines given worldwide, and of these over 352 million doses given in the US.

No other medical intervention has been given to so many people and found to be safe and effective. Dangerous side effects are exceptionally rare, and it took millions and billions of shots to observe. For example, serious blood clots were reported with the J&J vaccine, but, on further study, it turned out that only a handful of the 7 million people that received the vaccine saw this complication. This puts the risk of these blood clots on the order of getting struck by lightning and well below the risk of a blood clot with birth control.

Today, the Delta variant is spreading rapidly across the US.  Many areas are reinstating mask and social distancing mandates. Without control of this variant, we can expect the virus to continue to mutate.

We need leaders at every level who demonstrate rational decision-making and show consistent and effective public health oversight. Vaccine mandates are good examples — Gov. Charlie Baker and our nursing homes, President Biden and our federal workers, Defense Secretary Austin and our military personnel, Boston Teachers Union and our teachers, health care institutions, Tyson Foods and United Airlines.

The preliminary mayoral election in Boston is September 14, and health care workers will be paying close attention to how candidates act on COVID-related protections. Two out of five mayoral candidates, specifically Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, have said they fully support vaccine requirements for city workers and a proof of vaccination program for other indoor spaces similar to New York City and San Francisco. Leaders can and should be doing more to stand on the side of science, on the side of health care workers, and on the side of combatting a deadly pandemic that rages on.

While the new vaccination mandate for Boston city workers announced on Thursday is a good step forward, to get ahead of the Delta variant we will need Boston to implement stricter requirements for indoor spaces. Delta continues to prove that it is more infectious, transmittable, and can possibly spread through fully vaccinated individuals. Vaccinated folks are fully protected from getting very sick, but they can easily spread COVID to unvaccinated folks. That’s why there is a need to vaccinate the greater Boston community as quickly as possible.

The more people who get vaccinated, the better this crisis can be checked and the faster we can all get on with our lives. We all need to do our part and collectively kick it into high gear on vaccination. Nearly half the population in Massachusetts has been fully immunized against COVID but we need a range of 80 percent or higher to bring the virus under control.

Alarming new findings show that variants are more likely to impact patients with weakened immune systems, including organ transplant patients, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, people living with HIV/AIDS, and other immunosuppressed groups. The virus can persist in immunocompromised individuals, risking the development of super viruses that carry a kaleidoscope of mutations – much like the variants we are currently trying to control now.

The pandemic is also targeting children who are too young to get vaccinated against COVID.  More and more children are getting hospitalized with COVID infection, especially in regions with high COVID transmission rates. Vaccines not only protect the vaccinated but protect the unvaccinated — especially our vulnerable infants and children.

Meet the Author

Jarone Lee

Doctor, Massachusetts General Hospital
Meet the Author

Ray Liu

Doctor, Massachusetts General Hospital
Meet the Author

Noelle Saillant

Doctor, Massachusetts General Hospital
As COVID cases continue rising, health care workers are going to continue to carry the weight of the care burden for those who refuse to get unvaccinated. The best way to thank us is to get the vaccine and believe in the science. This is more than a small act of care and bravery: the lives of Bostonians and the health of our communities depend on it.

Jarone Lee, Ray Liu, and Noelle Saillant are physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital.