Hello, beloved St. Clarians,
I wanted to write this month’s Vestry Corner about vaccination and vaccine hesitancy. I’m so happy to have had my vaccine and to soon be rejoining in-person activities such as services at St. Clare’s! With some people in my family hesitant to get the vaccine, I’ve also been reading a bit about counselors affectionately known as “vaccine whisperers”, such as neonatologist Arnaud Gagneur, who have been helping new parents talk through their uncertainties around common childhood vaccinations since before the pandemic began. In fact, my mom has become something of a “vaccine whisperer” herself in talking to friends and family about the COVID vaccine, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve read and what she has experienced in case it might be helpful to any St. Clarians either for your own peace of mind or when talking to loved ones.
Both Arnaud Gagneur and my mom start by asking questions to find out where the hesitancy lies. Just like people have lots of reasons for getting a vaccine, people have lots of reasons why they might be unsure, and it’s important to hear them out. My mom asked some friends and family members, “What is the main reason you haven’t been vaccinated?” One of her friends had received some untrue information from someone she trusted wholeheartedly. My uncle had heard of someone who had side effects for a week after receiving a second dose and was concerned about missing work. Another friend didn’t want to get the vaccine because she didn’t trust President Biden. Another was concerned that there hadn’t been enough research about the long-term effects of the vaccine. Whatever the reason, each person had their own concern and was trying to do what was best for themself.
Sometimes in conversations like this when you feel strongly about a topic and are concerned about your loved one’s health, it can be tempting to argue against each point we disagree with. Unfortunately, that can make the other person feel invalidated and motivate them to end the conversation. Instead, it’s important to acknowledge that you believe they are acting in good faith and to share your own perspective, including information that is supported by research as well as personal stories about your own experiences. For example, a family who had just had a baby expressed concerns that a childhood vaccination might cause deformities in their child. Although such a side effect had never been documented, the counselor speaking with them didn’t simply dispel the fear. Instead, he explained the side effects that doctors had observed, such as pain at the injection site and fever. When my uncle expressed his concern about missing work, my mom explained that she had only experienced symptoms for twelve hours and didn’t know anyone who had needed to take off more than one day (although, she could understand why someone might want to take off an entire week!) With the friend who disliked Biden, my mom steered the conversation away from politics and onto her concern for her friend’s health. With the friend concerned about long-term vaccine effects, she pointed out that COVID-19 can also have serious long-term effects and shared some personal stories about people she knew who were still struggling with symptoms. Importantly, with all of her friends and our family members, she offered to explain how the mRNA vaccines work.
My stepdad is a biology professor who focuses on science education, and he explains it something like this. Your immune system is made up of two “armies” of cells. One is always around – it’s called “innate immunity”, or, we could call it “Immunity 1”. Immunity 1 the body’s first line of defense. The other is called “acquired immunity”. It’s the immunity that we acquire throughout our lives to respond to threats in our environment. We could call that “Immunity 2”. Immunity 2 uses cells called T-cells and B-cells that are capable of learning new behaviors based on experiences. They’re like special forces trained to deal with a specific threat. If you think about the two immune systems as two armies, you have a standing army, but if a threat invaded your body, you would need to call for reinforcements, and it would take some time for them to arrive.
Now, let’s introduce our threat: the coronavirus looks like a ball with spikes on it. The spikes work like keys and the cell works like a lock. If the spikes puncture your cell, the virus can enter and take command of the cells, even killing some of the healthy cells.
B-cells and T-cells from Immunity 2 work to kill the virus, but it takes weeks for the body to make them – basically the body is trying to train these special forces without a lot of time. Without these, Immunity 1 is on its own and sometimes ends up actually making things worse by killing tissue and potentially damaging organs. You can think of this as happening because Immunity 1 is overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to do about the new threat. With a vaccine, you are essentially preparing the reinforcements early, knowing that a threat might arise.
The mRNA vaccines work by carrying – not the virus itself – but code (called “messenger RNA” or mRNA) into our bodies. The mRNA doesn’t change DNA – in fact, it doesn’t enter the nucleus of the cells, so it never even interacts with our DNA. This code tells your body what the virus “looks” like and how to make a protein that triggers an immune response (or, to use our analogy, “rallies the troops” of B-cells and T-cells from Immunity 2). After that, the code and the protein are actually destroyed – so what remains in our bodies are just the T-cells and B-cells that we would make anyway if we were to become infected. The difference is, we were able to make them early so they are ready if they’re needed, and we were able to make them without getting sick or putting others at risk. Once those T-cells and B-cells know what to do with the virus, they do what they would normally do to fight it. In this case, they coat the virus – imagine putting gum or putty on a key – so that it can’t puncture and enter cells.
It’s ok for you, or your loved ones, to have questions or concerns about vaccination. I hope that we are all able to get the information we need and to engage with others about this topic. Like the ‘vaccine whisperers’, my mom ended all of her conversations leaving it up to her friends and family to decide what’s best for them. But, my uncle did decide to get vaccinated – and sent her a picture of his vaccination card today.
written by Julia Smith
Article I used as a refresher on how the immune system works: https://www.cancercenter.com/community/blog/2017/05/whats-the-difference-b-cells-and-t-cells
Article I used as a refresher on how the coronavirus works:
Article about how the immune system fights covid (link to an academic source on cytokine storm inside):
Further reading about cytokine storm: https://www.news-medical.net/health/What-is-Cytokine-Storm.aspx