I have two wishes this holiday season.

The first is that in the coming weeks and months, one or more of the COVID-19 vaccines working their way through the research and regulatory pipelines will prove to be safe, effective and widely available.

The second is that once that happens, people will actually get vaccinated.

This time last year, just before the news of a deadly new coronavirus took the world by storm, Maine found itself in the grip of a debate over vaccinations. At issue was the proposed people’s veto of a law that eliminated non-medical exemptions for school-age children and others when it comes to mandatory vaccines against measles, mumps, polio, diphtheria, chickenpox and whooping cough.

The March 3 vote, taken just before we went into a pandemic lockdown, was unequivocal: Mainers supported the new vaccination law by 73 percent to 27 percent, the widest gap for a statewide referendum outcome in decades. When it comes to a shot in the arm that keeps all sorts of horrible illnesses at bay, Maine was clearly all in.

But are we still?

As three vaccines, and likely many more, hurtle toward emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration and possible distribution by as early as the new year, will they be met with outstretched arms? Or will people hold back, reluctant to get a shot that this time last year didn’t even exist?

Short answer: It’s too soon to tell.

“If you were to ask me, ‘Should I take this vaccine?’, I would say, ‘I don’t know right now. I’m not quite sure,’” Dr. Laura Blaisdell of South Portland said in an interview Friday.

Blaisdell, a pediatrician and expert in vaccine policy, co-chaired last year’s campaign by Maine Families for Vaccines in support of mandatory vaccinations. And don’t get her wrong – she’s both enthused and optimistic that the COVID-19 vaccinations now being fast-tracked show remarkably high efficacy rates and few adverse side effects.

But she also knows the value of data when it comes to making the leap from controlled trials to widespread distribution. And the looming mass vaccination of not just Maine, but the entire planet, should rise or fall on that data.

But will the data be enough?

A Gallup poll released Nov. 17 shows just how conflicted Americans remain on what could be the seminal question of our time: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?

(Or, as Shakespeare once wrote, “Whether ’tis nobler in mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”)

Gallup’s online survey of 2,985 adults was conducted between Oct. 19 and Nov. 1 – before drugmakers Moderna and Pfizer reported that late-stage trials showed their vaccines were better than 90 percent effective against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Another promising vaccine developed by AstraZeneca, while easier to distribute, hit a snag last week following news of a manufacturing error.

With cases of COVID-19 spiking virtually everywhere, 58 percent of the Gallup respondents expressed a willingness to be vaccinated. That was up from 50 percent in September.

But at the same time, 42 percent said they would not get the vaccine if it were approved by the FDA and immediately made available to them. Their reasons, in descending order: the rushed timeline, waiting until a vaccine is confirmed to be safe, a mistrust of vaccines generally, and waiting to see if it is effective.

Some valid concerns there, to be sure. And we can only hope that as time goes on, the actual performance of one or more vaccines will continue to bump up the percentage of those who decide the risk of contracting and/or spreading COVID-19 outweighs the risk of the vaccine not working or causing adverse side effects.

But what worries me at this anxious moment isn’t what the data will reveal – good news or bad, it will determine the path forward. Rather, it’s the chatter that will inevitably take place far beyond the actual science, where fear and misinformation roll over the data points like an emotion-powered steamroller.

We saw it last year, when “Yes on 1 Maine to Reject Big Pharma” tried – and ultimately failed – to convince Mainers that vaccines are bad, doctors are corrupt and we’re all being played by a profit-hungry pharmaceutical industry.

And I fear we’ll see it again when COVID-19 vaccines arrive – conspiracy theories, unverified anecdotes and other scare tactics rooted not in valid research, but in the same paranoia that for months has decried COVID-19 as a diabolical, deep-state hoax aimed at … whatever.

Recently, I received an email from a Maine doctor who raised just such a fear.

Noting that many people at high risk of dying from COVID-19 are already sick or immune-compromised and thus already more likely to die within the next five years, he wrote, “When we give large numbers of them a vaccination in a short period of time, there will inevitably be sudden deaths in some of these people.”

Then what?

“This will be publicized very quickly and everyone will assume their death was caused by the vaccination,” he continued. “What we would really want to know is whether this group was dying at a faster rate than before vaccination.”

In other words, as we head into this next phase of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to rely on factual information, not shrill speculation, in deciding when to roll up our sleeves.

We demonstrated that, by almost a 3-to-1 ratio, at the polls last March. And Dr. Blaisdell, who deserves much of the credit for making that happen, said she’s confident that when it’s time to start vaccinating against COVID-19, we’ll do it again.

“I believe Mainers understand their community and they’re committed to one another,” Blaisdell said. “And so I can’t help but continue to have faith that enough of us will engage in the public-health sphere and take the vaccine so that we can get back to life as we knew it before.”

Just imagine, life as we knew it before. As we hang our lights and stare forlornly out our windows, there could be no greater gift.


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