I won’t lie. It’s been a difficult and frustrating start to 2021.
On the positive side: tomorrow, we’ll have a President and Vice President who believe in science, who believe white supremacy is a bad thing, and who are creating an organized plan to end the pandemic and the economic misery it’s caused.
Also on the positive side: we now have two highly effective and safe vaccines, with one or two more likely to join the list in the coming months. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
On the rough side: the pandemic is surging, and so many people are dying. It’s an unspeakable tragedy. Domestic terrorists tried to overthrow our government, and despite all the arrests, these terrorists are still all over our country. And so many continue to hurt economically, with many people struggling to pay rent and put food on the table, and a huge number of small businesses having closed or at risk of closing. (In the coming weeks, we’ll be working to extend California’s eviction moratorium and enact various budget measures to support struggling individuals and small businesses. Stay tuned.)
Sadly, on the self-inflicted wound front: the vaccine rollout has been anything but smooth. The Trump Administration, as always, has been a mess, and states around the country have been slow in getting shots into arms. Unfortunately, California is no exception. Indeed, until recently, California was near the bottom of the 50 states in vaccine usage. That’s changing, thankfully, with California accelerating its vaccine rollout. Yet, we still need to do much, much better. Because we don’t have a centralized public health system — in California or elsewhere — there’s been way too much confusion and chaos regarding vaccine access. It hasn’t been an acceptable state of affairs.
Fortunately, this bad situation is starting to change. Cities around the state are opening mass vaccination sites, and Mayor London Breed announced on Friday that San Francisco will quickly open up sites. San Francisco will take a more centralized approach, with a website where people can sign up and get information, so that we aren’t just telling people “call your doctor” or sending them to websites that don’t have useful information. We have a responsibility as a community to take an organized, centralized, and efficient approach to vaccine distribution.
Of course, even the most efficient system will lag if we don’t have enough vaccine supply. We need the federal government to move faster in procuring and distributing vaccine supply to states and counties.
But that’s not the only vaccine challenge we face. Another issue is vaccine hesitancy. Due to years of a deliberate misinformation campaign by anti-vaccine zealots, social media is filled with false and misleading information about vaccines, similar to the false information poisoning our society by QAnon and those who say the election was stolen. This misinformation consists of outright lies, as well as distortions (like amplifying very rare side effects as if they were common).
As a result, a significant minority of people say that they will not get the vaccine as soon as they’re eligible. While I believe a large majority of people — enough to achieve herd immunity — will ultimately get the vaccine, we need to ensure people have accurate information so that we can get to herd immunity quickly. Too many in the media, and even in the public health field, have focused heavily on pushing out negative messages about vaccines, for example, focusing on rare side effects. As the New York Times recently explained, the COVID-19 vaccines are among the most effective vaccines ever created.
Let’s be clear that our economy will not fully reopen — and we will not fully return to normal — until people take the vaccine. Period.
I wrote about this issue last week in Buzzfeed, comparing the fast and determined COVID-19 vaccine response to the massive neglect we saw while huge numbers of gay men and others died from HIV. In memory of the nearly 40 million people who’ve died of HIV — without effective treatments, without a vaccine, and often without basic dignity — we all need to take the COVID-19 vaccine, barring an actual health reason. As a gay man who survived the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis — with government essentially ignoring us because gay men, trans women, cis Black Women, and drug users were all considered expendable — I know just how lucky we are to have these vaccines. They will save so many lives and are a true testament to the power of science and innovation.
As a public official, I take my responsibility to communicate about the virus and the vaccine very seriously. And, there are a few things I want you to know:
- The vaccines are safe. I mean, REALLY safe.
Both vaccines are about 95% effective. And in reality, they’re more effective than that, as the tiny number who received the vaccine and still got COVID-19 got very minor cases. While all vaccines have side effects, like sore arm or feeling a bit under the weather with some flu-like symptoms, these minor side effects are happening precisely because the vaccine is working and inducing an immune response. The Moderna vaccine, in very rare instances, causes an allergic reaction. That’s why paramedics are always present with epi-pens. If you have had severe allergic reactions, definitely talk to your doctor to make sure you’re getting the right vaccine and taking the right precautions. And all of these side effects pale in comparison to being very sick with COVID-19, potentially on a ventilator and dying, and then potentially infecting other people and leading to them being on a ventilator because they can’t breath. This isn’t even a close call.
2. The vaccines are effective and they will allow us to get back to normal.
Public health officials — with good intentions — have sent confusing, mixed, and at times damaging messages about how quickly we can get back to normal once we get vaccines, and whether or not the vaccines will impact our lives significantly. To be clear: the vaccines are highly, highly effective. And while it’s still important to take safety precautions (masks, distancing, washing hands) until we reach herd immunity, once you get the vaccine, your life will undoubtedly change for the better. For one, you will be extremely unlikely to contract the virus. You can be around others who have had the vaccine and be fairly certain none of you will give each other the virus. You can do your job, take transit, and go to the grocery store and have almost zero risk of contracting the virus. That said, although many experts believe it’s likely that once vaccinated, you’re unlikely to be able to infect others, that proposition has not yet been shown through scientific study. That’s why the basic COVID-19 precautions need to continue until we reach herd immunity.
3. Every level of government needs to step up and work together so we can get everyone vaccinated and reach herd immunity.
Manufacturing and distributing vaccines is a difficult process, there’s no sugar coating it. We need to manufacture a massive amount of vaccines quickly — an undertaking that is unlike anything our government has done before. We need to move the doses around the country at very cold temperatures to facilities with proper storage. We need to give the right amount to the right places. We need to train enough people to administer the vaccine. We need functioning sign-up systems that allow those who are eligible to make appointments. We need to track who gets it and when and provide that data in an accessible way. We need eligible people to actually sign up and get the vaccine twice, three or four weeks apart. It’s a lot.
But we can do it. And frankly, we have no excuse for not doing it well. I have faith the federal government under President-elect Joe Biden is going to improve the vaccine manufacturing and distribution process, which will help the state plan and execute distribution more effectively (and thus help cities and counties plan and distribute better, as well). But the finger pointing and confusing messaging has to stop. Transparency and data collection must be key, so we know what’s working and what isn’t, and can fix issues quickly as they arise. Realism also must be key. Overpromising and under-delivering is not working.
I don’t have all the answers, but what I can say is this: the federal government coordinating a strong effort is the key to this vaccine rollout working, and I have faith that the Biden Administration will do a significantly better job than the current Administration.
While the road may be bumpy, we will get to herd immunity. And you will get a chance to get the vaccine, hopefully sooner rather than later. When that opportunity arrives, please seize it.
As always, you can reach out to my office with any questions at (415) 557–1300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.