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Saturday, August 13, 2022
Dr. Brown: Vaccinations, freedom of choice and social responsibility

Dr. Martha Brown Truncale

Special to The Lake Report

The societal struggle with vaccine uptake is such a drama in free societies. Every nation has found a vaccinated threshold, quickly reached and achingly slow to pass.

A foot-tapping look at the vaccine stragglers’ arguments for avoidance of civic duty can be frustrating. The trouble is, we need buy-in from everybody or nearly everybody to achieve practical freedom from the virus. 

Alaska is a good case study. Our state has a red hot test positivity rate of 9.1 per cent. A few days ago we shattered our daily record of new COVID-19 cases. Our largest hospital hit the news last week having to implement crisis standards of care and choose patients most likely to recover.

All of this drama after an early, well-organized, state-wide vaccine rollout. My dad, living in Niagara-on-the-Lake, will recall my Alaskan forecast way back then; expect a roaring ride to 50 per cent vaccination, then a fizzle. It happened. Nine months later we are at 56.8 per cent of Alaskans fully vaccinated. That is a lot of stragglers. 

What have we lost to such poor vaccination rates? In one word, freedom.

Freedom from worry. Freedom to go to work and school under reasonable conditions. Freedom from taking that vacation you rescheduled twice during the pandemic!

To be fair, no one is stopping you from going, but know that you’ll have to wander amongst the sea of carriers, some violently arguing about wearing a mask in the plane cabin.

The paralysis reached by vaccine hesitation has stalled out our recovery. A lot of people are dying in the U.S., with 1,500 to 1,800 deaths each day last week, almost unacknowledged. I find this astonishing after a week where we made sure to recognize, by name, all the Americans lost on Sept. 11.  

The freedom of choice in a society does inflict a burden on those trying to do the right thing. When unvaccinated co-workers are absent with repeated quarantine, it is the vaccinated who pick up the workload. And business leaders know they need a healthy workforce.

I hate to see the argument descend into blame. Even President Joe Biden noted that our patience is running out. I have real sympathy with folks not keen on new-fangled pharmaceuticals. But with free society does come responsibility. Embrace public health measures and some curbs on your freedom, even a few barriers, until the pandemic subsides.

What incentives could help convince another 20 per cent? Well, I entered a lottery this week. I don’t play the lottery but I entered my family's names in the Alaska “GiveAKaShot” drawing. It’s exciting really. Eighteen drawings with $49,000 cash prizes. Kids receive $49,000 scholarships. I hope it entices some Alaskans to offer their deltoid for a jab.

We could improve our messaging. First, public health messaging cannot be confusing. Keep it simple, really simple. Like, “Take the vaccine and you won’t die.”

And flip-flopping is dangerous. When the Centers for Disease Control recalled mask wearing among the vaccinated in May, I cringed. In my grocery store this “discretion” meant almost 100 per cent of customers were suddenly maskless but I knew that 50 per cent of my fellow food shoppers were unvaccinated. It was perfect tinder for the Delta variant. 

Second, we haven’t reached the vaccine-reluctant with scientific information. That is not their language. In a country of Super Bowl advertisement firms, where are the 30-second TV spots with dramatic storytelling and patriotic themes? This is a major oversight in a nation mesmerized by the word freedom.

Visuals of ICUs and Americans speaking to Americans about their experience are powerful. Ironically, U.S. television is chock full of pharmaceutical ads enticing us to take the next prescription drug. With Spikevax and, yes, Comirnaty, I feel the absence of the big-sell.

Some argue that we did it all wrong. We made the vaccine free, safe and widely available. I see folks turn their finances inside out to drive a behemoth truck and hold the latest iPhone. If you can’t have something, by golly, it has got to be good. Of course, we cannot not restrict access but consumer motivations have been untapped by advertising.

Free societies are then left with mandates and the fun-sponge approach. Each province and state, European Union member and Commonwealth partner is debating forms of vaccine passports. If we make access to “anything fun” a card-carrying event, perhaps the reluctant will follow. On a hopeful note, the demand for COVID-19 vaccinations tripled in Alberta, a day after a vaccine passport program was announced by the premier.

Remember all the vaccines you had to take to attend school and get various jobs in life? Mandates are not new. I had to laugh at the honest response of an American soldier I heard interviewed this summer.

He acknowledged that the only reason he had refused the COVID-19 vaccine was that it was the only time the Army ever gave him a choice. He was happy to relent once it was required. And we must allow medical and religious exemptions.

Here in Alaska, some local uniformed service members seeking religious vaccine exemptions were recently denied by their chaplain who declared the vaccine “a miracle.” He also wondered why they hadn’t exercised a religious objection to the other 17 required vaccinations to hold their job.

I wish I felt comfortable traveling to Canada now. With Alaska’s month-long delta-Crash in full swing and the long voyage of exposures on the way to NOTL, I have hesitated to take the risk of bringing the virus along with me. So I wait.

Pandemics end. We don’t have the date. Vaccines offer a measure of control, which is a choice in free societies and will make the next months' toxic political atmosphere worse.

We just have to look at China, which reports vaccinating over 1 billion people and realize that we aren’t an authoritative society.  Here, it really is, the survival of the free.

Dr. Martha Brown Truncale is the daughter of Dr. William Brown, our regular health and science columnist. She is a dentist in Alaska.