Our oldest child, Henry, turned 12 this summer. On his birthday, we lingered in a line of idling cars not far from UWEC, waiting for his first dose of vaccine. He was excited. Not a shred of trepidation. When our vehicle pulled to the front of the line, three young women doted on him, complimenting him on his bravery. The shot went into his arm, and we were off.
But rewind about 11 years. My wife and I were sitting in a pediatrician’s office in Madison, asking a series of questions about the vaccines he’d be receiving as a baby, not yet even a toddler. We’re talking time tested vaccines: Tdap/DTap, polio, Hep B. … Recall: Those were the days when many young parents were concerned that vaccines could somehow lead to autism. Those were the days when Jenny McCarthy was leading an anti-vaccine campaign predicated on bogus research and her celebrity as a Playboy model. My wife and I were not in that particular camp of scientific doubters, not one of McCarthy’s acolytes, but still, the water had been muddied. We lived in a city of hyper-sensitive helicopter parents eagerly ingesting whatever parenting advice came down the pike. There we sat, a coffee roaster and a law-school student, with just enough advanced education between us to be confident, but not enough to be an expert, certainly not in medicine. We knew only enough to be dangerous.
The pediatrician was not much older than us. Mostly what I recollect is that he seemed very weary. After we’d asked our questions the doctor very exhaustedly asked us, “Why are you here?”
The question was so perfectly put and simple, that we both immediately felt chagrinned, utterly embarrassed.
“I mean, why come to the doctor if you’re not going to follow their advice, my advice?” he continued. “This is my job. This is what I do. I read the medical journals so you don’t have to. I’ve studied the science. And the science all shows that these vaccines are not only safe, they are lifesaving. But you guys do what you want.”
Maybe you’re reading this and because it’s 2021, you think I have some sort of political agenda. I really don’t. If anything, I’m sharing this story because I want to express that I’ve been on both sides, that I’m not perfect, or immune to disinformation, doubt, and suspicion.
We’re at a point in this pandemic where, to be honest, if you’re not vaccinated, I feel a bit like that doctor — whatever. Do what you want. And maybe we’ll be lucky. Maybe this virus won’t keep mutating. But I’m concerned it will. Of course, a virus can’t mutate if it can’t find more hosts. I worry about folks who are less healthy than me and more vulnerable. And I would like to return to some semblance of “normal.” It isn’t every day, but frequently, our son tells me about the students in his class who, during the middle of the school day are asked to leave the classroom because of contact with a COVID-positive person. “There’s less and less of us every day,” he tells me. Which is why, perhaps, I’m sharing this anecdote of the tired doctor.
According to an executive summary from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, roughly 55% of the county has received the full vaccine regimen. That is slightly higher than the state number of 54% but lower than some of the numbers I’ve heard bandied about that might suggest herd immunity. I read the summary and I’ll further summarize the report with some telling if not dire language, “Prior trends suggest that hospitalizations and deaths are likely to continue to increase in the coming weeks.” Also, “Close contact between unvaccinated individuals and groups remains the largest risk especially when indoors or other poorly ventilated setting. Outbreaks continue to occur in a wide variety of settings, including long-term care, workplace, social gatherings, and schools.”
You see, even if you think this pandemic is a farce, even if you believe your right to not wear a mask or get a vaccine trumps the greater health of our community, what you’re saying to me, at this point, is that you don’t very much respect the lives of children in schools, or our elderly in nursing homes. You don’t care about faithful churchgoers. And, speaking directly to those holdouts and non-believers out there, I believe you very much do care about life. I believe you very much do pride yourself on respecting our very young and very old. I believe, deep down, that you consider yourself freethinkers. I know how difficult it is to change course, and as I shared earlier, I’ve been there. But where does it end? Why trust that the doctor treating your cancer isn’t also in cahoots with Big Pharma? Why trust that the nurse stitching up your child’s injured leg isn’t a political operative?
It ends in two ways.
After you or someone you know has been afflicted with COVID and they can’t breathe, and suddenly, the medical workers with ventilators and painkillers and years of medical knowledge — suddenly, they do in fact seem like experts, like apolitical healers and caregivers. Then, very quickly, you turn to those same folks you had eschewed and mocked. You turn to them to save you, to save your loved ones. I am reminded of the old saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
But it also ends when someone’s empathy outweighs their own pride. It ends when we embrace the strength of community, that we need one another, that sometimes, we don’t have all the answers. That sometimes, our own answers are wrong.