Martha Molina Bernadett, MD, MBA
Calls to a Family Doctor
I am a family doctor who has received many calls over the past year from worried patients, friends and family members. People asked, “How long will the pandemic last?” “What should I do to protect myself?” “Will I die?” We were bombarded with information from many sources hourly on our screens and phones. The stories seemed to conflict with each other as knowledge of COVID-19 evolved. What was true one day, was sometimes not true the next. Few leaders talked about the way science evolves as we incorporate new facts as scientists learn them.
That was the main message that I repeated over the past year. Science evolves as new facts are uncovered and our understanding of the truth changes. In the meantime, people are frightened. It is important to know that our understanding will continue to evolve as scientists continue to study and learn more about the virus.
As infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 decrease, millions of Americans are vaccinated every day. Now I receive different questions. “How do the vaccines work?” “Are they safe?” “Should I take the vaccine?” And the big one, “Did you get the vaccine?” Let me address these questions one at a time.
Exactly how the different vaccines work can best be understood by going to the CDC website (CDC.gov) and looking at the pictures and words that explain the differences between them. However, this is how I think about it: The COVID-19 vaccines work by causing your body to make antibodies to a “spike protein” that looks like the one that covers the surface of COVID-19. These antibodies float around in the blood like soldiers on night watch, always on the look-out for those spikes. When the real COVID-19 virus enters your body, the antibodies “see” the spikes, recognizing them as foreign invaders and rush over to them. The antibodies latch onto the spikes, disable the virus and remove it from the body before it can cause you to become sick. The antibodies remain as “memory cells” prepared to fight again if the invader returns.
The vaccines are very safe. Tens of millions of people have been vaccinated with very few side effects. You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine. Possible side effects are listed on the CDC website, too. If you experience side effects, they usually last only a day or a few days. The risk of dying or having long-term complications from the COVID virus are far greater than the risk of serious side effects from the vaccine.
Finally, the big question, did I get the vaccine? Yes, I have been vaccinated. I got the vaccine because I believe in science. I believe that the vaccines are safe and effective. During a measles epidemic a few decades ago, I got a booster shot to protect myself against measles. I had been vaccinated before, but from time to time the memory cells in our bodies need a reminder to be on watch for foreign invaders.
I think of the vaccine as my shield. Before there was a vaccine against COVID-19, my mask was my shield, helping to protect me from infection. The vaccine creates another and more effective shield, antibodies that give me immunity against the COVID-19 virus. I still wear my mask and will continue until the CDC tells us it is safe to be without it, but eventually my antibodies will protect me with an invisible shield even without my mask. That is what I want. I want to return to a world where it is safe to go out without a mask and have no fear of serious infection.
There remains much to learn, but I am hopeful for the future. The first step to that better future is to be vaccinated.
Martha Molina Bernadett, MD, MBA