Let me emphasize up front that I am fully vaccinated and jumped at the chance to get a jab in January when I blessedly received an unexpected opportunity. Admittedly, I had some initial reservations but opted to defer to influencers who I trusted understood the potential risks and had the background and expertise to weigh them.
One of them was my brother-in-law, a world class endocrinologist and researcher and a true man of science. If my brother-in-law advised the best treatment for hangnail was to jump off a building, my follow-up question would be, “How many storeys?” My brother-in-law works at a major Canadian hospital, and he got the Pfizer vaccine when it became available. He told me that Moderna’s was just as good.
The other influencer was Israel, a country I perceive that regardless of who’s in power, its government would never knowingly compromise the health and safety of even one of its citizens. Israel led the world in the Covid vaccine rollout, and if members of the country’s renowned medical establishment had serious concerns, word would have leaked out. Keeping opinions to themselves are among the few things Israelis don’t excel at.
While I perceive the U.S. government’s mass inoculation efforts as a good thing, I’m sympathetic to the sizeable swath of Americans who have serious concerns. I’m not talking about nut jobs who believe the vaccines contain microchips and that recipients will be compelled to wear some biological marker to prove they had the vaccine, but those who ask legitimate questions such as, “If the vaccine is so safe, why were the manufacturers granted liability immunity?”
Skepticism of U.S. pharmaceutical companies is not unfounded. Pfizer in 2009 settled for $2.3 billion DOJ allegations that it engaged in illegal promotion of certain pharmaceutical products – the largest healthcare fraud settlement ever. Some of Pfizer’s most popular products have been recalled because of quality and safety issues. Johnson & Johnson is reportedly among the companies settling for $26 billion its alleged role in precipitating the opioid crisis. Given the pathetic state of U.S. healthcare where Americans can go bankrupt because of a catastrophic illness and a health insurance system so overpriced that about nine percent can’t afford coverage, it’s hard to argue that the well-being of all Americans is the number one priority of our elected leaders.
I’m a believer and champion of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People in the Digital Age. While technology has changed the means of human communication, Carnegie’s rules of engagement haven’t. Carnegie argued, “the moment you use a medium to criticize, the subject of your criticism is compelled to defend. And when another is defensive, there is little you can say to break through the barriers he has raised.” Admittedly, I’m a poor example of someone who deftly executes Carnegie’s principles, but when I resist my natural urge to go for the jugular, my blog’s reader engagement goes up substantially. Trekking the high road is the most challenging of paths.
My vaccine conversation with my brother-in-law was a case in point. Had he responded with disrespect and hostility to my inquiry and said something to the effect, “I can’t believe I married into a family with someone so clueless that he’s asking me whether to get a vaccine in the midst of a pandemic,” followed by, “I’m warning you now, if you don’t get that vaccine, we will not be sitting with you at the Passover seder,” I might not have heeded his judgement. My brother-in-law assuaged my concerns with compassion and respect and allowed me to comfortably process his answer.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo would benefit from some emergency Dale Carnegie training. At a news conference on Monday, he declared, “We have to get in those communities (resisting vaccines), and we have to knock on those doors, and we have to convince people, and put them in a car and drive them and get that vaccine in their arm. That is the mission.”
A careful reading of Cuomo’s quote makes clear that he said “convince” people, indicating that people wouldn’t be forced into a car. But a major fear of anti-vaxxers is that the government will forcibly require them to get vaccinated. Cuomo’s statement hinted draconian measures could be in the offing and that he’d have no issues implementing them. Unlike his father, Cuomo is no statesman. Frankly, Cuomo’s bullying rhetoric on Monday made me sympathetic to all the damning allegations women have lodged against him.
While President Trump played a major role politicizing Covid vaccines and treatments, Cuomo, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel all contributed to the anger and distrust of anti-vaxxers. These pols chose to ignore the CDC’s pandemic playbook and use the tragedy to burnish their own careers and visibility.
According to this March 2020 New Yorker article, America is home to some of the most accomplished pandemic experts in the world. These experts foresaw the risk of a global pandemic and developed a protocol on how best for government leaders to respond. The protocol called for scientists to play a front and center role to avoid the perception that health mandates were political decisions. Cuomo and de Blasio ignored the CDC’s guidelines, and the New Yorker article explains how their behaviors compounded New York’s disastrous initial response to the pandemic. Whitmer and Nessel were among Trump’s biggest bashers, a move that didn’t endear them to the near 50 percent of Michganders who voted and supported him.
Dr. Anthony Fauci also bears some responsibility. He appears to enjoy his media status and has become a ubiquitous presence on the cable news shows. His seemingly insatiable appetite for the public limelight included mugging for a photo spread for InStyle Magazine, which touts itself as an “insider’s guide to trends in beauty, fashion, home entertaining and charities.” The doctor entrusted to protect America in the midst of a pandemic needs to maintain an aura of urgency and gravitas, granting media interviews sparingly to foster the perception that he’s too busy trying to save lives.
The media also played a major role hardening the resolve of anti-vaxxers with their relentless efforts to portray Trump as a racist buffoon. But some of those attacks proved unfounded, fueling more public distrust of the media, already at a record low. Trump was criticized for being a xenophobe for restricting travel from China, but we’ve since learned that was a smart move. Trump was ridiculed for predicting a vaccine would be developed and available in 2020, and that proved correct as well. Trump was accused of promoting hatred of Asians with his comment that the Covid virus might have accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan. Biden Administration officials reportedly say privately that might be the case.
The corporate media never acknowledges its errors, but conservative publications do a yeoman’s job reminding their readers of them. Even the Wall Street Journal, the most credible of the corporate media, has published misinformation. Writer Allysia Finley last October wrote a commentary saying people might want to follow Trump’s example and take zinc because “research suggests the mineral bolsters the immune system against Covid and other diseases.” Here’s what my brother-in-law had to say: “Low zinc levels are often seen in people with diabetes, alcoholism, colitis, liver disease, HIV, ageing etc. The low zinc in the patients with poor covid outcomes most likely reflects their comorbidities rather than anything therapeutic about zinc. I hope the article doesn’t prompt a spate of zinc toxicities.”
The media is quick to label anyone who dares to question government vaccine data as “anti-vaxxers” and supports Democratic Party efforts to censor them. I know of one cardiologist who had several posts removed on LinkedIn because he questioned some CDC vaccine safety data. The cardiologist, who has published more than 100 medical papers, says he’s “patient safety” not anti-vax. It’s heartening that LinkedIn appears to have backed off on its censorship. Some of the cardiologist’s latest posts have sparked spirited debates among seemingly knowledgeable and credentialed medical professionals.
The media is quick to disparage those who fear the vaccination, portraying all of them as ignorant Trump supporters. Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen on Saturday advocated that anti-vaxxers be punished. Said Olen: “Instead of punishing the people who did it right, give them positive reinforcement, while making it clear to the wrongdoers their actions come with consequences — for themselves. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be able to get on with our lives.” Now there’s a siren call promoting national unity and understanding.
America’s pandemic experts need to put on their big boy and girl pants and stand up to politicians who undermine their work and the media which is making matters worse. Best to heed the counsel of academics like Heidi Larson and David Broniatowski who advocated these measures in a March editorial in Science:
Scientists, politicians, and public health officials may not always recognize that vaccine hesitancy is not the same as being “anti-vaccine.” The vaccine hesitant are often mischaracterized as “anti-science” or simply “anti-vaxx.” But being hesitant or undecided in the face of a possible safety risk is not being anti-vaccine. A failure to understand the distinction can feed both fires.
Communication about vaccines must be delivered in an empathic manner to avoid stigmatizing those who question inoculation. This requires leveraging established relationships to address concerns of the vaccine hesitant. Examples include the Engaging in Medical Education with Sensitivity initiative during the 2019 measles outbreaks, in which Orthodox Jewish nurses empowered parents in that community to reach their own conclusions about vaccines while listening to their concerns and helping them contextualize information. Also, the University of Maryland’s Health Advocates In-Reach and Research network of Black barbershops and salons trains personnel as health educators to encourage customers to pursue healthy behaviors.
Dale Carnegie would be proud.