Even as vaccines for COVID-19 begin to get rolled out, many Americans remain uncertain as to whether they will be willing to receive the vaccine once it becomes widely available. Front line health care workers will be among the first groups to provide real-world evidence of the vaccine’s side effects and efficacy outside of controlled test groups.

As a practicing physician in the Seattle area, I received my first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine last week, on Christmas Eve. Finally taking my turn gave me a sense of pride for science and all of the hard work my fellow health care workers put in to ensure a smooth and fast distribution process. It was also a moment of hope for the coming end of this pandemic.

According to a Gallup poll from early December, 63% of Americans say they are willing to be vaccinated. This is promising, as only 50% of Americans were willing in September. For the vaccine to make a real difference in stopping the pandemic and saving lives, though, this number still needs to increase to an estimated 70% to 90%, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, depending on the vaccine’s efficacy over an extended period of time.

The facts favor vaccination

I realize people may be concerned about the lack of long-term clinical trials around how the human body responds to these vaccines and whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has applied enough rigor to the review process given the global urgency to develop and distribute.

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In light of these fears, and as someone who has now received the vaccine, there are a few things I want Americans to know:

► There is not much to fear in the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved.

Between my time in the Army and working as an emergency doctor, I’ve taken almost every vaccine under the sun, including for some unpleasant diseases like smallpox and anthrax. While certain vaccines might seem scary and unknown, the benefits of taking them far outweigh the risks. The same is true for COVID-19.

Based on data from the trials so far, this vaccine appears to have few side effects, though some reports of allergic reactions have started to emerge. These are minimal however, and individuals should consult with their doctors regarding any concerns about allergic reactions.

Brad Younggren receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, Washington, on Dec. 24, 2020.
Brad Younggren receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, Washington, on Dec. 24, 2020.

► Make your decisions based on fact, not myth.

Everyone has the right to make their own individual risk assessment about whether or not they are comfortable receiving this new vaccine. But these assessments must be grounded in the data, not speculation, wild theories or politics. FDA-approved vaccines are safe for most of the population and common side effects are detected before they are licensed. In addition, vaccines are continuously monitored for side effects after a vaccine is licensed. Follow the guidance of the CDC and, more importantly, your primary care provider to determine whether the vaccine is safe for you.

Getting the vaccine probably won’t be as bad as you think.

Nothing is as pleasant as a walk in the park, but most people will experience mild to moderate soreness at the injection site and may feel slightly under the weather for up to several days.

Personally, the soreness I felt was not unlike the annual flu shot. I was vaccinated in the early afternoon and had a slight headache later that evening and into the next morning, but it resolved in less than 24 hours. While none of the symptoms kept me from being able to work at any point, and many of my colleagues confirmed the same, you should anticipate feeling the effects of the vaccine for a few days and plan accordingly.

My job as a parent helps guide my decisions through this process.

Personally, I need more time before I’ll be comfortable having my kids receive the vaccine, especially considering that the coronavirus does not pose a serious health threat for the vast majority of children.

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The pharmaceutical companies are starting to test on teenagers and children as young as 12 years old. But the results of these initial trials will only be a fraction of what parents, including me, need to have peace of mind that the vaccines are safe for children. Adults should get the vaccine to help protect themselves, their households and their communities — and thus children will gain greater protection even prior to the studies in children being completed.

Brad Younggren at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, Washington, on Dec. 24, 2020.
Brad Younggren at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, Washington, on Dec. 24, 2020.

Getting vaccinated is an important step, but it won’t solve everything overnight.

Be prepared to continue wearing face coverings and following social distancing recommendations for the foreseeable future. While we have strong evidence that the vaccines are highly effective at providing recipients with immunity to COVID-19, we still don’t know whether they also prevent transmission. An immunized, asymptomatic person may still be able to carry the virus and pass it on to other people. Therefore, other preventative measures will need to stay in place.

Vaccinate for our doctors and nurses

I spent a year in combat serving as an Army physician in Iraq, and the psychological toll this pandemic is taking on doctors and nurses here in the U.S. and around the globe is comparable to the trauma of working in a war zone. Good doctors and nurses are burning out, or retiring early, either from sheer exhaustion or the severe emotional distress of providing intensive care to tens of thousands of severely ill patients. By receiving this vaccine, you’re doing it for yourself, those you love, the health of your community and nation and for health care workers around the world.

An anticlimactic vaccination: My COVID-19 vaccine was like a flu shot. I got one and went right back to work.

To put this in perspective, a typical ICU nurse-to-patient ratio is usually 1:1. The University of Minnesota recently reported that many Midwest hospitals are operating at a ratio of up to five patients for every nurse. These figures vary from state-to-state, but across the country, medical staffing is in dire straits.

My hope is that when doctors and political leaders demonstrate confidence in taking the vaccine, many of the fears around it will be eased. More clinical trial information is coming forward all the time, and soon we’ll have real-world data to further support the case for taking the vaccine. Anyone concerned about this should be watching these developments closely, and thinking long and hard about their worries compared to the downsides of foregoing vaccination when it becomes widely available.

More pointedly, do the potential unpleasantries of a vaccine outweigh what our country has been forced to sacrifice during the pandemic? For me, they do not. We need all healthy Americans on board in order to stop this virus and begin returning to life as we knew it.

Dr. Brad Younggren is the chief medical officer at 98point6, an on-demand digital primary care service. He is also an emergency physician and medical director of emergency preparedness, trauma and urgent care at EvergreenHealth in the Seattle metropolitan area. Younggren is a Bronze Star and the Combat Medic Badge recipient for his service in Iraq as a U.S. Army physician. Follow him on Twitter: @Younggren

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: Overworked nurses, doctors need Americans to get vaccinated

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