September 21, 2021
Written by: Jenna McHugh
It took me 8 months to get my first dose of the mRNA vaccine. As someone who works in health care I was one of the first to be offered the vaccines in Ontario, Canada. I didn’t book my appointment and I waited nervously hoping that none of my colleagues would ask me whether I had my first dose yet. If anyone did I would say, “No. I’m not in a rush.” in a finalized tone, which would dissuade any follow up questions. I didn’t give anyone a hard time about getting the vaccine and I talked and supported my friends and family members who weren’t sure or were on their way to getting it. I didn’t coach anyone not to get the vaccine and always encouraged those around me to make an individual choice. The only people I questioned were the friends I had who had tested positive and suffered symptomatic cases, who were then going to get the vaccine: “Why get it if you already have the antibodies?” Their answers were a combination of being done with the pandemic, wanting to travel, and “do shit” as one of my friends put it. I didn’t push past that, even though I had seen the data that indicated natural immunity was just as robust as the vaccine. I engaged in a series of debates with a friend in my life when I was eligible and he was not. He couldn’t wait to get it and did at his first opportunity. For him the vaccine meant freedom, for me it was too many unknowns. During the conversations I was adamant that I could be wrong, but I had no desire to make a fear based decision and at that point I couldn’t be convinced of either side. For many months I remained eligible, unvaccinated and undecided. All of my friends and family understood and spent time with me regardless of my vaccination status; a testament to the honest, open and a-political people in my life. It’s something worth noting, as I’ve heard stories where the opposite is true.
I’m someone who spends more than my fair share of time on Twitter. I follow what has been deemed the ‘culture war’ closer than the average person since approximately 2017. I watched as the media spiralled during the Trump administration, the left fighting with the right in the political realm, the attacks on freedom of speech, Me Too and cancel culture on the micro and macro levels. Paying attention to all of these phenomena seemed to prime me for a response to a pandemic that would be skeptical, questioning and distrusting of the common narrative. With a Masters in Public Health and a job working at a community health centre, the vaccine and the COVID pandemic response was something that was constantly on my mind. To me, public health had destroyed its reputation and was mismanaging the pandemic beginning with the discussion on masks, to the ongoing lockdowns, and the hypocrisy of the position surrounding the anti-black racism protests in July 2020. The skeptical stance I was posturing seemed to be counter to many members of my graduating class and others I worked with. From where I stood the public health recommendations were laughable and it was difficult to take them seriously because they seemed relatively illogical. Our Canadian public health officials were having conversations about masking during sex; what type of credibility do health officials have after that?
Many have tried to explain the phenomenon of the shifting culture that seemed to come about at the onset of the pandemic because it ventured beyond a public health crisis. We had moved from science and healthcare to politics and alarmism. Everything was politicized, getting a vaccine was a badge of honour, lockdowns were literally saving people, and if one pointed to alternative evidence they were ostracized. Many minds, including my own, seemed to forget what had previously made sense. Throughout the last 19 months, I never believed that COVID-19 was a hoax, or wasn’t dangerous for the elderly, or that long-haul COVID wasn’t serious. What worried me wasn’t the Bill Gates 5G conspiracies, but the reasonable types of concerns that were associated with dissemination of a new health product to billions of people in haste. For the last few decades, the narrative surrounding pharmaceutical companies was one of profit-driven, greedy, and inconsistent development of drugs that provoked lawsuits. And now, here was what seemed like the world praising Moderna, Pfizer and other drug companies who were able to develop a vaccine and trial it within the year. How could one not be skeptical? I was mentally flip-flopping on the vaccine frequently, but part of the problem was that the public health officials and governments were also flip-flopping. You could have received a vaccine on a Monday, only to find out it was off the market by Friday. There was evidence that natural immunity was robust, but we were hearing that everyone needed the vaccine even if they had had a positive PCR test, if you were vaccinated, you still had to mask because you might spread the virus unknowingly. It was beyond eye-roll inducing. Why wouldn’t public health and governments acknowledge the contradictions? Without wanting to, I became the informed person who was declining the vaccine and I came to realize that knowing my questioning stance regarding the vaccine made the decision for those in my life who were also hesitant easier.
Given a mix of my personality and my exposure to the increasingly posturing stances of the left-wing and right-wing provocateurs and media, large governments and public health officials telling me I ‘needed’ to get vaccinated registered in my psyche as a challenge. I wouldn’t be able to get this vaccine just because someone reading a teleprompter, or some government agency, was telling me I had to. The classic arguments in favour of the vaccine could all be questioned by the idea of the ‘unknown long-term effects’. Who could argue with that? The comment was true. Sars-Cov2 was novel and mRNA technology had never been mass produced. The idea of getting the vaccine for the health of society could also be shrugged off because the ‘unknown’ potential negative impacts of my individual health did not (in my mind) supersede the societal gains, particularly for a healthy person in their 20’s. Then I thought, I will let everyone else get it and I won’t. I will let many of the masses play the fool, while I wait and see. However, I was constantly toying with the fact that I could be wrong about the vaccines. It was a definite possibility. In hindsight, one of the advantages I had was that I continued to remain curious. I didn’t stop looking at information, and listening to podcasts with alternative opinions. I enjoy conversations about ideas, listening to philosophical discussions and following political commentary, and with the vaccines at the top of those conversations, I was listening.
Ironically, I was invited to a scheduled meeting with my supervisor to discuss a new project I would be undertaking, a vaccination promotion campaign to educate those who were vaccine hesitant. I knew I would take on the project, but it was not without pushback and hesitation. I explained that I was not interested in attaching myself to any political campaigns and was weary of the current narrative surrounding the push for vaccinations, as I felt that it had strayed away from the evidence and was moving towards a political one. If anything, this conversation encouraged my supervisor’s desire to give me the project because it sounded like I understood the unique aspects of the problem. Furthermore, I wasn’t blindly pro-vaccine, which could be the wrong approach for educating those who were hesitant. This was, of course, conflicting. Could I encourage those to receive a vaccine that I had not had myself? It didn’t feel like the right thing to do. Agreeing to take on this project at work was not what changed my mind, but it did make me consider that if I thought something was good enough for the community I work and live in, why wasn’t it good enough for me? Why did I think I was special?
I recall asking myself what it would take for me to make a decision. I considered FDA approval and removal of the Emergency Use Authorization, more studies on fertility, and more time. I wanted all of those things and I was saying them right up until I changed my mind. And then it happened. I heard Dr. Paul Offit say on a podcast that there’s a difference between being cynical and being skeptical and anyone who hadn’t been vaccinated by this point was being cynical. He was explaining that the evidence was already here. That night I spent time looking for information to prove my own theories about the unknowns, information on fertility, long-term side effects from vaccines and as I was looking for this information, I realized that I was only looking for information to prove to myself I was right, rather than considering all the evidence in its entirety. I was being cynical. Even more, I found myself wishing I had had COVID-19 in March 2020, while the virus was in its infancy, to acquire antibodies. The idea that COVID would be swirling around our population for the long-term with an increasing likelihood that we would never reach herd immunity, increased the odds of me contracting the virus, in turn, increasing my desire for antibodies. Why would I be wishing to have had a virus to get antibodies, when I could go get them with a vaccine? Don’t I want to reduce inflammation in my body? Why would I wish that I had been sick? It also occurred to me that if I didn’t believe in this overwhelming body of evidence, I was then subscribing to some sort of conspiratorial thinking. All of the doctors who I had been following, who aired on the side of heterodoxy were all pro-vaccines. If I believed what they said about natural immunity, the competing evidence for boosters, the questions surrounding masking and double-masking, why couldn’t I believe what they said about the vaccines?
The very next day, after hearing Dr. Offit, I woke up, booked an appointment and went to get my vaccine on my lunch break. It was almost surreal. I went to one of those large clinics, where office desks had been turned into semi-private locations for nurses to administer the doses. I couldn’t quite grasp that these people had been here, providing vaccines to the willing all this time, and there I was, finally doing it. What had been an ongoing internal battle for me was the daily routine of the masses. When I walked out, I was slightly anxious, but mostly I was relieved because I had finally made a decision. It was only for a moment where I wondered whether I would have any serious side-effects, but logically, I knew there was almost no chance I would. I knew I had made the right decision and my second-dose couldn’t come soon enough.
My motivations for writing this are to let people know that it’s okay to be wrong, and in fact, you may end up better for it. In thinking back on my personal vaccine story and the journey of wading through this pandemic, I realized that where I stood on getting the vaccine stems from our politics seeping into everyday discourse. In no way should public health be political. Moreover, in no way should science be political. Through all of these conversations and in my final decision I realized that I didn’t have to trust pharmaceutical companies and I didn’t have to trust governments to make the right decisions for me and my body. I imagined the man, or the woman, in the lab, the person who loves science and research, who is there all day and night for the sole reason of their love for science. That’s the person who I knew I could trust and will continue to.
Jenna McHugh is the Founding Editor of Vigor. Follow her at @jennoratorr