COMMENTARY

Let Me Tell You About My Vaccine

Dinah Miller, MD

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Welcome to our national obsession: Vaccines! You may have noticed – it’s all talk, all the time, with short breaks to discuss what we’re watching on Netflix.

For months, every session with almost every patient includes a commentary on someone they know who has gotten "the shot." Before our state expanded eligibility to all adults, the discussion might include thoughts about who deserves to go first, who "cut the line," how they did it, what vaccine is best, and worries about side effects.

And it’s not just my patients: With every friend, with every acquaintance, and even just walking by strangers who are conversing, the topic of discussion is vaccines. The narratives are similar; people want to talk about who has gotten vaccinated, why they qualified, where they went, which one they got, and what side effects they experienced. This is followed by a discussion about what they are now doing that they weren’t doing before being vaccinated, if anything. Some have returned to indoor restaurant dining, others only dine outdoors, still others continue to avoid public settings. There are the fully vaccinated, the partially vaccinated, and those scheduled for the first shot. In the unvaccinated/unregistered group there are the vaccine-hesitants and vaccine-refusers, with their concerns about everything from the safety of the agent to whether the government is using this as a way to insert tracker chips into all of us. There is enthusiasm, trepidation, anxiety, fear, excitement, relief, and absolute joy.

Recently I opened two emails from old friends I have not communicated with in a long time. Both emails began with, "I am fully vaccinated." I know that the Uber driver who took me to the airport recently received his first dose the Saturday before. And yes, I heard the status of his wife and two children. In the course of one work day, I received distressed text messages from two patients about vaccines – one was anxious about having received the Janssen vaccine that was paused that morning, another was worried about getting a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine later in the week because he was having a symptom that could be indicative of COVID-19. I suggested that his primary care physician might be a better resource for this, but then added that he should probably get tested and delay having the second dose if positive. It seems I did have thoughts about a course of action after all.

Some psychiatrists have wondered how to handle patient questions about their own vaccination status. I have taken the stance that we are physicians, and that patients who may be seeing us – now or in the future – for in-person appointments are entitled to know if we pose a risk to their health, and so I have chosen to answer, without further exploration, when patients ask if I’ve received that coronavirus vaccine. Some psychiatrists feel it is our responsibility to share this information with our patients as a way of modeling safe behavior, and I have had one patient who said she would not be getting vaccinated until I told her that I thought she should.

"Did you get it?" she asked.

"I did," I responded.

"Okay, if you got it, I will." She soon discovered that vaccinations were hard to come by and that in her social group, being vaccinated was something of a status symbol. In addition to the worry about contracting a potentially fatal virus, her hesitancy yielded to "vaccine FOMO" or fear of missing out.

Some psychiatrists have felt uneasy with a question that pertains to their personal health, or have used the question as a springboard for exploration. Nicole Leistikow, MD (fully vaccinated, Moderna), is a psychiatrist in private practice in Baltimore. She notes, "Recently, I was discussing vaccination with a patient who wasn’t sure what information to believe or how much to trust the U.S. government. My careful exploration comparing different risks was not very helpful. I mentioned that I was vaccinated and that if he got vaccinated, he could come for a low-risk, in-person appointment after a year of telephone visits. This proved to be a winning argument and he called back later that day to say he had already had his first shot from leftover vaccine at his pharmacy."

I grew up in a world that did not question vaccines. You got them and they were good things. No one asked which pharmaceutical company manufactured the vaccine. We trusted the system and our physicians. Schools asked for proof of vaccination, and it never occurred to me not to be vaccinated. Life has grown more complicated in the last 30 years, and the groups of people who are opposed to being vaccinated are more diverse. Those opposed to getting a COVID-19 vaccine are not necessarily the same as the broader group of anti-vaxxers that spawned from the fear that childhood vaccines cause autism. For some, it’s a personal issue related to their own health and risk perception, for others it’s a polarized political issue, and for another group there is the question of where their trust lies.

What lies ahead in our postvaccine world? This will be our next national conversation, and just as we negotiated our own levels of comfort with regard to working and socializing during the pandemic, I imagine the postvaccine world will have the same adjustment. There already are cases of COVID-19 in those who have been fully vaccinated, as well as the rare hospitalizations and deaths – we simply cannot expect a vaccine that did so well in controlled studies of tens of thousands of study subjects to do as well when given to tens of millions of uncontrolled citizens. One of the first deaths in a fully vaccinated person in late March was an older psychologist, and it remains unclear how effective the vaccine is for immunocompromised patients. Some people will play it very safe, eschewing all activities that entail risk, while others will choose to adhere to either their own intuition about what is safe, or to the recommendations of Anthony S. Fauci, MD, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I’ll end with a final thought from the Twitter feed of Ashish K. Jha, MD, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, Providence, R.I. Dr. Jha tweeted, "Once you get fully vaccinated, it absolutely changes what you can do safely." It seems our national conversation is not slated to change anytime soon.

Dinah Miller, MD, is a coauthor of "Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore.

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

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