May 5, 2021
To members of the Baylor College of Medicine community:
(Do you have a young adult child/grandchild/relative/friend? Please feel free to share this letter with them or adapt it for your own use):
Happy 30th birthday. Of course, I have a gift for you, as usual. This year I am hoping you will be willing to give me a gift as well: Please get your COVID-19 vaccination.
This is important to me.
First and foremost, I worry about your health. I understand that as a young person you are much less likely to become severely ill from the virus compared to me or your grandparents. However, your risk is not inconsequential.
As a 30-year-old, when you walk out the door today, your risk of dying from SARS-CoV-2 infection is about the same as your risk of dying in a car crash. That risk of a fatal wreck is thankfully very low. You follow your daily routine without thinking about it. Yet you buckle up every time you get in the car. Your car has an air bag. You do not drive while impaired. Hopefully, you follow the traffic laws. You take simple preventative steps to decrease the admittedly low risk of a tragic outcome.
Remember as well, death is not the only bad outcome. COVID-19 is not just a bad cold. True, many young people have very mild – even entirely asymptomatic disease. However, a few wind up hospitalized with severe complications arising from the inflammatory response that affects some people after COVID infection.
As if that were not enough, we now must worry about so-called “Long-COVID” symptoms. If infected, there is a significant chance of symptoms that persist for weeks or months – “brain fog,” decreased exercise tolerance, shortness of breath, PTSD-like symptoms, anxiety to name only a few.
As you talk to people you know who have recovered from COVID-19, make a habit of asking them how long it was before they felt normal again – often it is months. You are too busy; you have too much you want to do in your life to be slowed down for months by a preventable problem.
And it is preventable. Easily preventable. It is not as if I am asking you to do something difficult – to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise regularly. I want you to get a shot or two that is highly effective, incredibly safe, widely accessible, and free.
Another reason. I want you to get back to your life. I think your generation has been given an incredibly bad rap during this pandemic. People your age have been unfairly portrayed as selfish and ignorant, unable to resist the urge to rush shoulder-to-shoulder into bars. I have seen your experience over the past year and know nothing could be further from the truth.
I hesitate to use the word “easy” to describe my experience over the past year, but if you are older and married, and able to work, it has not been all bad. I come home, cook or have dinner delivered from an amazing array of restaurants and figure out our next series to stream on Netflix. For my generation, in some ways, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to deepen connections to those in our lives.
Your experience has been completely different. People in their 20s and 30s are still trying to form connections. Friends are critical and getting together with them was spontaneous. Now opportunities for socialization are limited or require significant planning. Forming social connections at work is even more problematic as so many are working from home. Ask yourself the question: Have you made a new friend or entered into a new relationship over the past year? For many, the answer is no. I believe an underappreciated impact of this pandemic has been the extreme social isolation of young adults.
Vaccination presents an opportunity to recapture spontaneity. It is your path back to broad social interaction, travel, sporting and cultural events, and spontaneous unplanned gatherings. It is not about packing bars – it is about reclaiming an important part of your life.
So far, this is all about you – keeping you healthy – reclaiming your life. I hope we have taught you that much of the real meaning of life comes from what you give to others. Your vaccination serves a broader purpose. Your example influences those around you, probably far more than you realize. Our shortest path back to something close to our pre-COVID normal is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. At this point, many of the people who were anxious to get vaccinated have done so. Clearly the demand has started to wane.
There are people your age who are “vaccine hesitant.” They do not see the need, have vague concerns about safety, and worry about transient side effects. There are also a very few out there who are vehemently – and in my view, wrongly – anti-vaccine. Their views are amplified by the echo chamber of social media. In addition, although this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, there is apparently good intelligence that certain foreign governments are waging a cyber-propaganda campaign to raise false doubts about the safety and efficacy of the available vaccines.
What is the best way to reach the thoughtfully hesitant and counter misinformation? It is not by shouting louder or crafting a devastating retweet. It is through your example. Think about how this pandemic started. At some point, a single person became infected, perhaps from a bat. That single person infected two or three others. Those two or three infected two or three. Dozens became hundreds, hundreds became thousands. Now we have millions of infections.
We have been living through a vicious epidemic – we need to start a virtuous epidemic. When you get vaccinated, you set an example for your peer group. Maybe one or two of your friends decide to get vaccinated as a result. If one or two of their friends get the shot, dozens become hundreds, hundreds become thousands. Your small, individual decision to be vaccinated has greater impact than you appreciate.
Finally, and selfishly, I want you to be vaccinated for our family. Even though we have administered a jaw-dropping one billion doses of vaccine worldwide, global herd immunity seems a long way off. I am not sure we can achieve it at that scale.
However, if the world cannot get there, I am confident our little family herd can. Once our family is vaccinated, we can let our guard down a bit. Family rituals can resume. We can start to celebrate weddings, new babies and birthdays much like we did in the old days. We can start to travel again.
So on this birthday – your second of the pandemic – commit to giving yourself the gift of vaccination. Do it for yourself. Do it for me. Do it as a selfless act for your community.
I have always been proud of you, and remain incredibly proud of who you have become.
(Post-script: I employed quite a bit of poetic license here. I have two daughters, but no sons. They are fully vaccinated. I am incredibly proud of who they have become.
As the pandemic seems to have hit a prolonged, slow, downward trend, we will start our journey back to normality over the coming weeks and months. I have been writing this message weekly for over a year now. I am grateful for those of you who take the time to read it, and for those of you who share it. I hope it has been a source of reliable, unbiased information. I hope it eased the minds of a few people during a difficult year. As one of my tentative steps to normality, I am going to decrease my message frequency from weekly, to every other week. Thank you for hanging in there with me.)
James T McDeavitt, M.D.
Senior Vice President and Dean of Clinical Affairs
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