May 6, 2021
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A Shot at Normalcy
Young Huntingdon alumni who work in health care weigh in on the COVID-19 vaccines.
“Nothing beats giving a warm hug or firm handshake to others you care about,” says Berrell Cobb ’13, an intensive outpatient therapist in Mississippi. “Before the pandemic, I truly took for granted the power of human contact in therapy (and in my personal life).”
Coronavirus and COVID-19 have infected and affected every segment of society; almost every industry in our economy; every aspect of mental and physical health and health care; and our personal and professional relationships. For more than a year, we have avoided physical contact with others, masked up, cleaned, and socially distanced, and still we have lost more than 560,000 souls in the U.S. alone.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 40 percent of eligible Americans had been vaccinated with the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccine to combat COVID-19 as of April 30, 2021. In just the last 100 days, more than 220 million have rolled up their sleeves. But there is widespread concern now for the hold-outs—those who haven’t been vaccinated and who aren’t lining up—because the CDC estimates that, at minimum, 70 percent of Americans must be vaccinated for the country to achieve herd immunity and thereby triumph over—or at least take control of—the virus and the disease it causes.
“Actually, I was the ‘wait and see’ individual,” says Cobb. “I wanted to see if anyone had any adverse reactions to the vaccine. After the testimonies of others, I received both doses of my vaccine (Pfizer) in March. I was very nervous because I am cognizant of what I put into my body and I have 100 natural remedies for everything under the sun. To those who are hesitant or nervous, it is perfectly okay to have those feelings. As a minority, I can identify the feelings that I felt when I heard of the Tuskegee Experiment and that fear later correlated to my thoughts surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Your feelings are valid, and it is okay to ask questions. For me, I am not too keen on medicine; however, I received a polio vaccine when I was a child. I have not had polio, nor have we seen an epidemic related to increasing cases of polio. I used this rhetoric to give myself some comfort in regards to the [COVID-19] vaccine.”
“I never imagined when I graduated from pharmacy school in 2017 that three years into my career I would be on the front lines working to serve and help my patients during a pandemic,” says Quintarious Perdue ’13, a pharmacist and pharmacy manager in Montgomery. “Everyone often looks toward health care providers as a source of influence, strength, and encouragement; however, we are humans also.”
The personal losses most Americans have faced, such as absence of human contact and gathering with others; loss of freedom to eat in restaurants, work-out in a gym, travel, or enjoy a concert, movie or play; loss of the mental and physical stimulation these activities and human contact provide—all of these pale in comparison to loss of life, loss of health, and loss of work experienced by many Americans.
“It seemed that almost every day I worked, I was hearing from one of my patients’ relatives that they passed away due to COVID,” says Perdue. “I know that as a health care provider losing patients is a part of the job, but it is not easy to hear about that loss.”
“My approach to those worried about the COVID vaccine has been to spread 3 key messages,” says Dr. Danilea Walker Werner ’98, Ph.D., LiCSW, MSW, MPH, an associate professor and director of the Master of Social Work program at Auburn University. “First, I believe we have to provide facts, not opinions. Use creditable sources. Second, be clear about the vaccine and the potential side effects. The CDC confirms that individuals may experience side effects from the vaccine, but the effects should go away in a couple of days. Remember, side effects are a sign that your body is building protection against the virus. Third, share personal experience with the vaccination. I have received both vaccines and although I experienced a few side effects they disappeared within 48 hours.” Werner serves as a faculty representative from the university senate on the university COVID-19 operations committee and is a key member of the Auburn University COVID Resource Center (CRC).
Dr. James Robinson ’04, an assistant attending physician in primary and sports medicine at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, had only recently moved to the city when the pandemic shut it down. “In April 2020, NYC was particularly hard-hit with cases. We converted our orthopedic hospital to care for COVID patients. I was working inpatient medicine for the first time since residency. The city was mostly deserted outside the hospitals, and it was very eerie. The sheer volume of patients was astounding. However, what struck me the most was how some patients would be doing better, almost ready to go home, and then the next day they could be on a ventilator.”
Robinson was vaccinated in December 2020. “I have encouraged all of my family to get the vaccine. I encourage all of my athletes that I take care of to get the vaccine as well. There are many benefits to being vaccinated—the first being protection from the virus and its harmful effects. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are around 95% effective at preventing primary infection and 100% at preventing hospitalization and death. While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not as effective at preventing infection, it is still very effective against hospitalization and death. The second reason is to benefit those around you. The more people who are vaccinated the more likely we are as a society to achieve herd immunity. This is the best way to control the infection and allow society to return to normal more safely.”
Vaccinations not only promise a return to normalcy, but also help to curb the growth of mutant strains that can become even more virulent than SARS-CoV-2, the strain that causes COVID-19. Jeremy Pittman ’09, who will graduate from the School of Dentistry at Howard University this summer and move on to first-year residency in Utah, has seen the coronavirus threaten the practice of dentistry and sicken many patients and family members. “Vaccination is essential for slowing the mutations,” he says. “It’s constantly mutating, so if we can get a grasp on the strains in general, we can hopefully prevent a supermutation. The reason we can’t find a cure for AIDS, for example, is that it is constantly mutating.” The more people who are unvaccinated, the more opportunity for the virus to replicate and mutate.
Health care workers have seen and lived through the worst of the pandemic. Pittman urges quick action to vaccination for the sake of health care workers, as well. “I see a lot of people who complain about wearing the mask for X number of hours, but I tell people you technically don’t have to wear it that long. You can stay home. You don’t have to be out and about. I have to wear an N-95 mask, have to get my temp checked, sanitize just to walk into the building; then wear a level one mask on top of the N-95 with eye protection and gown, cover my shoes, scrub mask, face shield—the bridge of my nose is raw from wearing the masks, and my mouth is muzzled, my nose runs. I’d rather walk around with a mask for 2-3 hours than have to be like this all day.”
Dr. Chasi Fowler Skinner ’08, DO, FACEP, is a board-certified emergency medicine physician practicing in Tallahassee, Florida. “I was vaccinated—gladly!” she says. “I have not personally taken care of a single [COVID-19] patient who has been vaccinated (yet) and then later tested positive. We had no employees hospitalized due to vaccine complications. But it’s VERY important for the public to remember, ‘fully vaccinated’ and decrease of transmission rates ONLY occur 14 days AFTER your 2nd vaccine dose [in the case of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine].”
“The world economy has changed with COVID-19,” says Skinner. “Now, with vaccine(s) available, we have the opportunity to reduce the burden on society, economics, not to mention the obvious decrease on health burdens and mortalities.”
Pittman echoes the economic and personal toll the disease has taken. “Small businesses make up the community. I saw my friend in the middle of opening two restaurants who then had to stop, lay off workers, bring them back, then lay them off again. From the boss standpoint, you care about your employees. From the health care profession, I have friends who both worked in health care and didn’t see their newborn baby for almost a year because of the health protocols. They gave the baby to their in-laws because they were so afraid of spreading infection. The mother had to decontaminate her breast milk before it could even be fed to the baby. People practicing in medical fields had to sign waivers that if they got sick they would have to die on their own. Yet we are expected to care for everyone—even those who don’t follow the protocols and could have prevented infection in the first place. When are people going to listen and follow the precautions for our sake?”
“The main concern that I hear from patients is that vaccines make people sick,” says Perdue. “They or someone they know received a vaccine and they became sick from it. What I tell people is this: Vaccines DO NOT cause illnesses. They prevent illness and prevent the severity of the symptoms should you contract the illness as with the influenza and shingles vaccines. Vaccines cause the immune system to respond and create antibodies for protection and immunity toward the illness. It is similar to preparing for an exam—you become familiar with the material so that when the time comes to face it, you can ace it. Introducing vaccines in the body allows for this as well. The immune system will respond to the vaccine and build antibodies so that if the actual virus or bacteria enters the body, the immune system has already prepared for it, thus it will take out the illness before it even has the chance to cause a problem.”
Perdue has vaccinated many clients at the pharmacy he manages and says the process has been rewarding. “Each person I vaccinate, I feel that I am helping them and the world move toward living without the constant fear of contracting the virus or giving it to others. Several of my patients have shared their excitement and gratitude for receiving their vaccine from me.”
Cobb echoes all of these health care workers in the belief that vaccination is essential for healing ourselves and our country. “This may sound cliché, but if we can display empathy—care for others—and not become so consumed with self, we can move toward a more freeing and less fearful environment. I wore/wear my mask, socially distance(d), and avoid(ed) large gatherings/crowds to protect the safety of others and their families. If we as a society were more considerate of others, I genuinely feel that we could have stopped the spread long before the vaccines this year.”
“I use the story of 9-11, when our country was attacked and we always said we can rebuild but it takes all of us to do our part,” says Pittman. “We’re in the same situation. 9-11 was so shocking everyone wanted and needed to do their part. We need that attitude now. We need everyone to do their part.”