Should I get a COVID-19 vaccine?

This is waaaaay outside my usual type of article, but it's a big question on the minds of Christians everywhere, and I've been asked: Is the vaccine safe?  Should I get it?

Let's begin with COVID-19: Is it really a threat?  YES.  Yes, it is.  Globally, there have been nearly 85 million cases with 1.8 million dead.  The US accounts for nearly a quarter of the cases and 20% of the deaths.  Those numbers are very likely substantial underestimates, meaning that the real total is probably quite a bit higher.  I personally know one person who has died from COVID and three who have been gravely ill in the hospital for more than a week with COVID and COVID complications.  None of those people I know were in any category of high risk.  This disease is real.  The threat is real.  Those who say otherwise are mistaken, to put it as charitably as I can.

The tricky thing about COVID is that only a small fraction of people have a really bad reaction to it and only a small fraction of people are what specialists call "super-spreaders."  Most people will have very mild symptoms.  In addition to those life-threatening cases I personally know, I also know of numerous extremely mild cases with just a few symptoms.  It makes sense that most people then think this threat is overblown.  People think, I know a bunch of people who had it, and it's not as bad as people say.  Except for those few among us who end up in the hospital nearly or actually dying.

Is it really that infectious?  As I said, most people infect very few others, maybe one or two other people who are in regular, close contact.  Since the start of the pandemic, my wife and I have been exposed to two different individuals who very shortly after our exposure developed COVID symptoms.  In neither case, despite hours of unmasked exposure, we didn't get the virus.  Why?  Those people weren't super-spreaders.  A small fraction of people infected with COVID will infect one or two dozen people.  These are the super-spreaders.  This is the source of those stories on the news where an entire wedding or church service came down with the disease.  They're a very small fraction of the cases, but they're responsible for 80% of the infections.  Had my wife and I been exposed to super-spreaders, we almost certainly would have contracted the disease.

So how do we know ahead of time if someone is going to be severely sickened by COVID?  We don't.  How do we know ahead of time if someone is a super-spreader?  We don't.  That's why we have to be careful.  I don't know if I could be one who dies, but I also don't know if I'm a superspreader capable of giving COVID to a big crowd and killing some people.

What can we do?  Fortunately, there are very simple things we can do to limit the spread.  Social distancing and face masks are great ways to reduce the probability that you will spread a deadly virus and kill someone.  Social distancing means limiting your exposure to other people: Reduce your trips to the grocery store, go to the grocery store at hours when it's unlikely to be crowded, don't eat out, etc.

When you do have to go out in public, wear a mask.  Do masks work?  They do not "work" in the sense of giving you 100% protection from the virus, but they do "work" in the sense of reducing the probability that the virus will spread in the population.  It's not just about you or the people around you.  Understanding masks and social distancing requires you to think about whole populations and about probabilities.  Everyone has some risk of catching this virus, and with the numbers of cases being so high now, the probability of catching COVID is pretty high.  Mask-wearing and avoiding crowd reduces the probability that you will catch COVID and reduces the probability that you will spread COVID if you don't know you have it.  Wearing a cheap mask or wearing it poorly or intermittently will also increase your risk of catching or spreading COVID, but they're better than nothing.  Put mask-wearing and social distancing together, and you reduce the probabilities even further.  Using hand sanitizer and not touching your face in public also reduces these probabilities.

Since this is all about probabilities though, there's a very small chance that you could follow all of those suggestions and still get COVID.  But here's the thing: Probabilities work best in large populations.  Let's say for the sake of argument, your unprotected probability of contracting COVID is 30% and that mask-wearing reduces that probability to 20%.  In a population of 1,000 unprotected people, that's 300 sick and probably three dead, but if they wore masks, that's only 200 sick and two dead.  Mask-wearing literally can save people's lives.  This example is way oversimplified, but it gives you a sense of what mask-wearing and social distancing can do in the population.  To the individual, wearing a mask and social distancing might seem like a tedious, unpleasant experience, but you may never know the life you saved.  Because I understand these population dynamics and probabilities, I will continue to wear masks and encourage others to wear them.  It is just about the least thing I can do and a very, very minor inconvenience.

I suppose I should say something about public health mandates and shutdowns.  First, I think these are no-win scenarios.  We can do nothing and let the virus kill who it will, which given our knowledge is cruel and unacceptable.  But if we shut down retail and restaurants, some of society's most economically vulnerable are put at high risk.  Likewise for small business owners, which are the majority of businesses in this country: Extended shutdowns can put an end to a lifetime (or generations) of building up a small family business that provides communities with jobs.  So you can't win.  I also think there's a lot more psychology that needs to be considered before going into lockdown.  Foremost of these I think is school.  Kids not accustomed to home schooling didn't do very well with the lockdown, and they need to be in school.  That's just one risk I think we have to take.  The other issue that I see is that we cannot expect the population to willingly cooperate in social distancing and mask-wearing.  So I'm all for mask mandates when they're appropriate, but shutdowns are far more serious.  I can understand them for limited times in serious situations, but we're not a communist country that can just pay people to stay home.  People gotta work.  So I don't have a good solution, and given the no-win scenario, I'm relatively sympathetic to those who have to make these decisions.  There are a whole lot of governors who are not likely to win re-election.

So what about these vaccines?  Should we get one?  Are they safe?  First of all, let me address the paranoid: This is not a plot to tag people or track people or even a test drive to see how to tag people.  Those ideas are so silly, I'm not even sure what to say about them other than they're silly.  I have yet to see any shred of evidence that there's any kind COVID vaccine conspiracy.  Innuendo and accusation are not evidence.  So let's just move on from that nonsense.

Are these vaccines safe?  As far as I've read, these vaccines seem to be safe for most people.  The most common side effects are basically what you would experience if you were actually ill: Swelling, pain, fever, etc.  These are signs that your immune system is reacting to the vaccine.  If you experience these symptoms, you are not actually sick, even though you feel like it.  There do seem to be a few cases of severe side effects reported, like allergic reactions.  We're still pretty early in the vaccination process, and I'm sure we'll hear more about rare side effects as more people get the vaccine.  But remember: The rare anecdote of one person having a bad reaction are not evidence of widespread danger to most of us.  Likewise, if the vaccine makes you feel sick, that's not a sign that it's dangerous or ineffective.  That's just your immune system working on this weird, new thing in your body.

Are vaccines in general safe?  Yes, they are.  Persistent rumors to the contrary have no basis in reality.

Should a Christian get vaccinated?  Absolutely, with reasonable precautions for those who are immunocompromised or have severe allergies.  Obviously, everyone should not just run out and disregard reasonable caution.  But on the whole, vaccines prevent the spread of deadly diseases.  That's what they're designed to do, and they do it very, very well.  As far as we are able, then, we ought to participate in this process and thank God for vaccine science.  Vaccination is an amazing discovery and an amazing gift from our Creator.

Are there good religious reasons to object to vaccines?  OK, this gets more complicated, because I think there are definitely legitimate religious and ethical concerns about some vaccines.  The main issue I see for Christians is the use of cell lines derived from questionable sources, such as aborted babies, in the development or manufacture of vaccines.  Even with this though, the issues get thorny and complicated.

For example, there's a big difference between taking something from a dead person with consent and murdering someone specifically to harvest their body parts.  The latter is far out of ethical bounds, but the former could be ethical.  Likewise, vaccines developed or manufactured using abortion-derived cells would be quite different from vaccines that only used such cells in safety testing.  In the former case, the entire vaccine owes its existence to abortion-derived cells, but in the latter, the safety testing is incidental to the existence and efficacy of the vaccine.  They could have tested it on any number of different cell lines.  Testing was not an essential ingredient to the vaccine itself.

I want to emphasize that these are not easy matters to think through, but I'm grateful that there are experts who can help.  Here is the rundown on the available COVID-19 vaccines from the Charlotte Lozier Institute (source):

Notice here that most of these vaccines are NOT developed or manufactured using abortion-derived cells, with the exception of Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

I've found numerous examples of Christian doctors and experts giving their judgment that the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are ethically justifiable given our current circumstances.  For example, see Is Receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Ethical? and the judgment of Catholic bishops.

What will I do?  I'm getting vaccinated as quickly as possible with either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.  I don't even like getting injections, but I think this is an ethical act of Christian kindness and love for neighbor.  I'll also continue to wear my mask during the vaccination process as the rest of the world gets vaccinated, because I want to contribute to positive peer pressure while there is still a threat of spreading the virus.

So that's my opinion.  God bless you as you consider these complicated ethical issues and make an informed choice for yourself.  But please do not be fooled by the conspiracy theories that something terrible and nefarious is going on.  Do not let yourself be duped by anti-vaccination propaganda.  Misinformation does not belong in your deliberations about COVID-19 vaccination.

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