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Virologist: COVID-19 vaccines provide ‘hope that the end is in sight’

A health care worker at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center receives a COVID-19 vaccination on Dec. 16, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

The race to vaccinate is on across the country, and about nine million Americans have already rolled up their sleeves so far. Dr. Angela Rasmussen, virologist with Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science & Security, and weekly guest of KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show, says the vaccines do provide hope, but it’s not the end of the pandemic just yet.

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In a Twitter thread, Dr. Rasmussen compares where we’re at in the pandemic to climbing out of a well.

“So there has been a lot of discussion among scientists, and journalists, and people who are writing about this and thinking about this about how well we’re actually selling the vaccines or creating demand for them,” she said. “And some people have suggested that we’re not giving enough of a hopeful message to people that will actually decrease vaccination uptake. And I don’t agree with that at all.”

“I feel that it’s really important to make sure that we’re communicating accurately with the public, to make sure that we’re being honest about what we know and what we don’t know about the vaccine. And that is the best way to build trust and get people wanting to take the vaccine for themselves,” Rasmussen added. “So I wrote a tweet thread, a pretty long tweet thread, comparing the pandemic to being at the bottom of a well.”

In this analogy, the onset of the pandemic is the moment that we fell into the well.

“It’s very dark, it’s very cold, but there is a ladder out of it,” she said. “So we started climbing up that ladder. And when we got to the point in December where we developed and authorized for public use, two very efficacious vaccines at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, that was the first glimmer of light at the top of the well. But just having those vaccines isn’t enough. We need to make sure that people are taking them.”

Dr. Rasmussen also pointed out that we still don’t know whether or not these vaccines can prevent transmission or protect against infection. Right now, she explained, we only know about their ability to protect against symptomatic disease.

“So it’s like we’re still in the well, we’re still climbing. We can see the glimmer of hope at the top, but right now is not the time to either declare victory or to give up,” she said. “Right now is the time when we should be doubling down on the interventions that we know work to reduce transmission in the short term and, in the analogy, to keep climbing out of the well.”

“And as we reduce transmission, as well as more people get vaccinated, eventually that little circle of light at the top of the well will get bigger and bigger as we get closer to it, and eventually we’ll be able to climb out of the well and return to our normal lives,” she added.

Dr. Rasmussen says she hopes this analogy communicates to people that there are still some unknowns about the vaccines, and we should continue to use caution.

“But we’re on our way to ending this, and so people should have hope that the end is in sight,” she said.

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Addressing the deaths in Norway, Germany

While the vast majority of people who have received the COVID-19 vaccines so far have handled it well, with only minor side effects or treatable reactions, in Norway, doctors are investigating the deaths of nearly two dozen elderly patients who got the Pfizer vaccine. Reports of a few more deaths have surfaced in Germany as well. Rasmussen says it’s not yet known if the vaccine was the cause of the deaths.

“Right now, this is a matter of concern, but it’s important for people to understand that those people who unfortunately and tragically died were also very, very frail,” she said. “So it’s very difficult to say if they died just because of the vaccine or if it was because they were already very frail, very fragile patients to begin with.

“For the time being, Norway has not changed any of its recommendations about the vaccine, and to my knowledge, neither has Germany, which should tell us that there is a good indication that the vaccine may have had nothing to do with those deaths,” she added. “Those people were in a high risk population, they were already very, very sick, and elderly. So it’s important for people to not jump to conclusions. In the vast majority of people, these vaccines are safe, and like I said, they’re very efficacious. These vaccines are really the key to ending this pandemic for good in the long term.”

To hear Dr. Rasmussen’s answers to listener questions, find the full interview here.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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