COMMENTARY

The Psychiatrist and the Vaccine

Dinah Miller, MD

January 12, 2021

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When the long-awaited news of a Food and Drug Administration–approved vaccine came on Dec. 11, 2020, my first thought was that I would wait. I can manage a few more months of Zooming for work, my household is down to two people, I'm not at high risk of dying from COVID, and my husband is not going to be vaccinated any time soon, so a change in my status wouldn't "free" me. I would rather have "my" vaccine go to a 70-year-old ICU janitor or a bus driver.

The weeks have gone by. I expected there would be kinks, but it has now been a month – one in which COVID rates have soared, and hospitalizations and deaths have risen to unmanageable numbers in some places. Still, vaccines remain in freezers – people are dying while vials of prevention sit unused. I began to think that, when my "turn" came, the better thing was to be vaccinated. We need to have a large segment of the population vaccinated to squelch this virus, and it's become much less clear to me that, if I yield my turn, it will go into the arm of a bus driver. The process has not been fair, and there are moments of media outrage when one group gets vaccinated before another, so perhaps we have reached point where the goal should not be to get the vaccine into the exact right person in the exact right order, but to get the vaccine into arms according to the protocol that has already been set. Anyone who does not end up in a hospital bed is doing the system a favor.

Mahmood Jahromi, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Towson, Md., described the process of vaccination as being similar to a bottleneck traffic jam. "Yes, one must be courteous to the car trying to but in, but no, don't jam the glue because you are excessively kind. Let the traffic police do their job. When your name is called, go ahead and take it. The system needs to know people are accepting the vaccine, not by begging the authorities to be called ahead of others, but with respect for what is already designed."

On Friday, Jan. 8, I received information on how to get vaccinated – it seems my "turn" has arrived. An email from the board of physicians informed me that I am in the "1A" category and included a link to sign up for a vaccine in Baltimore – vaccinations would be given until Jan. 29, Mondays to Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There are no weekend or evening hours, and one might think there would be enough urgency to call for this. The Maryland Psychiatric Society sent out a notice that Sheppard Pratt would be offering vaccines to all behavioral health providers in the state of Maryland during a 2-day clinic. I heard from others that health care workers can now get vaccinated at the Cow Palace (how great is that?) at the Maryland State Fairgrounds and another link was sent for those in Howard County, between Baltimore and Washington.

As I discussed this with colleagues, a couple of issues came up – the most common was one of not wanting to get the vaccine yet because there are others who need it more. Others voiced concern about a vaccine where the long-term effects remain unknown: Is this vaccine safe, might it spur autoimmune problems in the months or years to come? Is it safe for women who plan to become pregnant? Some have insisted it is safe. They say "follow the science" and have dismissed the skepticism. To my read, it makes perfect sense to be wary, but COVID spreads silently and it kills.

With a vaccine where so many are reluctant to get it, including many health care workers, Sue Kim, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Lutherville, Md., noted that she has concerns about the safety of the vaccine. "Getting it now is both altruistic and selfish, but letting others go first is also altruistic and selfish. In the meantime, if I get sick, I was too smart for my own good. How do you weigh this ethically?"

My personal feelings have been influenced by a few things. An article in the New York Times highlighted how New York City vaccinated 5 million people for smallpox in just 2 weeks in 1947. I am frustrated knowing that, a month after approval of the first vaccine, only 7 million people have received it in the entire United States. In that time period, millions have contracted COVID and thousands have died. Closer to home, a 45-year-old psychiatrist in Maryland died of COVID, and I have heard more stories about younger people with long-haul neurologic and vascular symptoms. The risk of COVID is feeling higher than it did, and the fact that the first vaccine was authorized after the election somehow makes me feel that it might be safer. Had it been approved right before, I would have worried – perhaps wrongly – that the authorization was a political maneuver, not one based on science.

As we think about what is best for ourselves, our families, our patients, and society as a whole, I believe that those who want the vaccine but don't feel they should take their place in line before others who are higher risk must ask if it makes sense to wait. Each state is different. While Houston Methodist Hospital is reportedly giving its health care workers a $500 bonus to get the vaccine, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York announced that hospitals would be fined $100,000 if they don't use all of their vaccines within 7 days of receipt and $1 million if they vaccinate anyone out of order. Gov. Cuomo later broadened who could be vaccinated to prevent wasting the vaccine, but there remains an element of being damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Paul Nestadt, MD, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, noted that one distribution site initially had to waste unused vaccine when people did not come for their appointments. A waiting list was created for people who could come right away if called to prevent this waste. "To me, this only highlighted that the tier system, while a good idea, does not need to be written in stone. The goal needs to be getting shots in arms, building herd immunity. If there are two arms in front of you, shoot the health care worker or those who are vulnerable. But if there is a healthy arm in reach, it should get any shot made available."

I registered to be vaccinated. Maryland is still vaccinating only health care workers and people in long-term care facilities – senior citizens and essential workers are not yet eligible. In Baltimore, vaccinations are available Mondays to Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There are no options for early morning or weekend times, but there are slots still available for the coming week. As of this writing, there are 6,100 Marylanders dead, and more than 1,800 COVID patients in hospital beds, and our governor, Larry Hogan, has commercials to "Mask On Maryland" and "Wear the Damn Mask." I'll offer some changes: "Wake Up, World" and "Offer the Damn Shot."

Miller is coauthor of "Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2016). She is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore. Miller has no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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