“Double vaxxed!” a student exclaims to a passerby, strolling through campus with a bit of a skip to his step. His face is covered with a mask, but his eyes exude excitement, and his smile is audible in his almost musical tone.
Behind him sits a large, white tent, pitched awkwardly in the center of a campus parking lot – the same tent that students at Muhlenberg College had been coming to for nearly four months to get their weekly COVID-19 test. In a way, it represents one of many inconveniences which had become commonplace over the course of the pandemic, but it now holds a new promise as vaccination paves the way to some semblance of normalcy.
In the line to enter the tent, a short student scrolls anxiously on her phone while a tall man behind her stares off into the distance, apparently lost in thought. One woman, having initially given every appearance of preparedness and composure, rushes out of the tent. She had walked over moments earlier holding a clean file folder, presumably containing her paperwork (which had to include a photocopied and printed image of the front and back of insurance cards and identification), but now hurries off, mumbling something about forgetting the copy of her ID.
Despite the panic over paperwork, participants seemed peaceful awaiting their chance to be vaccinated. On this day, though, the atmosphere in the tent was anything but.
“Hey!” a harsh voice demanded attention away from the scattered conversations. Walking towards the tent was a maskless man with his hands in his pockets. His aggressive tone didn’t match his appearance – he was surprisingly unassuming, dressed in jeans and a North Face fleece with simple, wired glasses, and standing with a slight hunch to his stature which didn’t exactly exude confidence. “I’m just curious what’s going on here.”
A volunteer assisting with coordination of the clinic looked up, putting a hand out to signal to the man to keep his distance, “Sir, I’m going to need to ask you to put a mask-–”
“So,” he exhaled sharply in disbelief, “you’re vaccinating people for a disease that has a 99% survival rate?” His eyes were fixed on the sign for the vaccination site. He ignored the volunteer’s request, his face growing red with anger.
There was a moment of silence, as bystanders stared in disbelief, perhaps sharing the occasional glance with another to assess the situation. It was short, but it lingered.
The volunteer spoke up again. “Sir, can you please–-”
The maskless man interrupted, raising his voice before unexpectedly storming off, “Well, I just wanted to let you know it’s up your mother’s ass!”
He’s not alone in his views. Recent polls suggest that 37% of Americans remain hesitant about or completely against receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. But the FDA has declared the vaccines as safe and effective, so what leaves so many with concerns? The answer is complex.
One of the largest groups displaying COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, unlike for other vaccines, is white, Republican males. Rural areas, which too often face deteriorating health infrastructure on top of the pressures of the pandemic, also have disproportionate numbers of vaccine hesitant residents.
Linda Findley, a resident of a small community near Fort Scott, Kansas, does not plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. “I don’t even know what I think about it,” she told an NPR journalist, “How did they come up with a vaccine that quickly? And how do they even know for sure it’s even working?”
Dr. Chrysan Cronin, director of Public Health at Muhlenberg College, has been advocating for COVID-19 vaccination in the Muhlenberg community and beyond since vaccines first became available to the public last December. She believes that addressing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy requires an understanding of the ways in which our society faces systemic failures for science literacy, as reflected in Findley’s concerns.
“Public health experts and health care professionals should not be the only ones educating about vaccine safety and effectiveness, and promoting the importance of vaccination,” says Dr. Cronin. “We need everyone to talk to their friends, family, church members, community members to communicate the facts and dispel the myths about the vaccine.”
Polling suggests that having the opportunity to get the vaccine through a trusted primary care provider, rather than at large and impersonal vaccination clinics, would be encouraging for many vaccine hesitant individuals. Unfortunately, such strategies are difficult in rural communities like Fort Scott where primary care is difficult to access at all.
On the bright side, Pfizer has recently announced that they are applying for full FDA approval, a move which former CDC director Dr. Richard Besser believes could assuage the fears of some individuals who have remained hesitant about the vaccine, as this will require the company to present more extensive safety and efficacy data.
Of course, beyond issues of trust for the vaccine’s safety and efficacy are questions of whether COVID-19 is itself dangerous to begin with, as demonstrated by the maskless man’s proclamation of a 99% survival rate. That number isn’t entirely accurate — Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center lists survival rates in the U.S. as 98.2% and even lower in countries like Mexico. But even so, when it comes to widespread disease, the often-cited “99% survival rate” still leaves a huge death toll. “Ninety-nine percent means that one out of every one hundred people will die from this disease,” explains Cronin. “How many students would that be at Muhlenberg? Who would you pick to be that 1 in a 100?”
She also stresses that dying of COVID-19 is not the only risk to be concerned about. “Survival does not equal healthy,” says Cronin. “At least one-third of the people who survive have reported long term side effects (they have been referred to as “long haulers”).” According to the CDC, long haulers can suffer from fatigue, difficulty concentrating, pounding heart, shortness of breath, joint or muscle pain, depression, and anxiety long after they were infected and even if they had a mild or asymptomatic case. But unfortunately, such arguments fail to reach those who deny the impact COVID-19 has had in the first place, falling back on issues of scientific literacy and trust in officials.
Even among those that believe the vaccine is safe and effective, though, are many who argue that mandatory vaccination would be a violation of their rights. Muhlenberg had already been encouraging members of its community to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and recently announced that it will require all students to be vaccinated for COVID-19 if they wish to come to campus for the Fall 2021 semester, joining an increasingly long list of schools enlisting similar requirements. Such announcements at institutions across the country have led to strong discourse regarding the extent to which vaccination should be viewed as an individual right or a social responsibility, with many Americans concerned about mandatory vaccination infringing on their freedom.
At Muhlenberg, many students are encouraged by the college’s decision as they look forward to what will hopefully be a more normal semester this fall. “I think that it’s a good idea,” says Dani Barrett ‘22. “It’s one of the best ways to keep the students safe while preserving the academic and social environment that we love at Muhlenberg.”
“We [were] required to get other vaccines to come on campus anyway,” says Sylvia Fisher ‘21, “so I don’t see any harm in adding this vaccination.” She’s right, but mandatory vaccination in schools has been a topic of increasing debate in the United States, and when combined with the lack of FDA approval and concerns for American values, it’s not surprising that there is also some pushback to COVID vaccine mandates.
Even at Muhlenberg, some students question the impending requirement. “I’ve met a lot of students who say it’s a ‘personal matter’ – they don’t go into it much,” says Vanessa Pham ‘21. The college will allow a variety of religious and medical exemptions to vaccination for the fall semester.
Dr. Cronin sees large-scale vaccination as the only way to truly protect everyone from the virus, but she is optimistic that many hesitant individuals will come around with time, experience, and education. “In an ideal world, we would all do the right thing and get vaccinated, and then the college wouldn’t need to make it mandatory,” she says. “Unfortunately, the world is not ideal.”
Photo courtesy of @muhlenbergcollege on Instagram