Director's Voice Blog

In the monthly Director’s Voice Blog, OBSSR Director William T. Riley, Ph.D., discusses timely topics related to behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR). Subscribe to receive updates from OBSSR Director William T. Riley, Ph.D.

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Considering Others When Considering Getting Vaccinated for COVID-19

Together we came close (67%) but failed to achieve the President’s goal of 70 percent of Americans receiving their first COVID vaccination by Independence Day. Together we must continue to help as many people get vaccinated as can be vaccinated, not only for our own sake but for the sake of others as well. To illustrate how getting vaccinated helps others, I want to share a personal story.

Two and half years ago, after a serious bout of pneumonia, my wife was diagnosed with leukemia. After inpatient and outpatient chemotherapy, she received a bone marrow transplant. We are among the fortunate - her bone marrow transplant was successful, and she is now in remission - but during the many months of treatment, her body was unable to fight infections. Interestingly, the process of replacing her bone marrow also resulted in her immune system starting anew with no built-up immunity from prior infections or from prior vaccinations. Therefore, just like a newborn, over the past couple of years she has needed to get revaccinated for polio, chicken pox, measles, and other infectious diseases. It was only a couple of months ago that she was finally able to receive the MMR vaccine, normally given to 12-to 15-month old’s, to protect her from measles, mumps, and rubella. During the time she was unvaccinated and susceptible to these many serious and life-threatening illnesses, she practiced the social distancing, facemask wearing, and handwashing and surface cleaning behaviors that we all learned to do during the pandemic. And we were thankful for the many people who helped protect her from getting infected by being vaccinated against these many infectious diseases until she could get vaccinated herself.

My wife and I often talk about of how much more difficult her treatment experience would have been during the COVID pandemic. A small measles outbreak during her treatment was frightening to us; I can’t imagine what it is like for the over 10 million people in the U.S. who are immunocompromised and have had to protect themselves during the COVID pandemic. They depend on all of us to help protect them by getting vaccinated for COVID. None of us would ever knowingly expose someone to COVID, but as we have learned, we can be asymptomatic but be infected with the virus and spread it to others easily. Even if you believe that COVID is not a big deal for you and are willing to take the chance with yourself, it is a big deal for an immunocompromised person for whom getting COVID is serious and potentially fatal. You don’t know my wife, but chances are that you know someone in your social circle, someone you care about, who is immunocompromised and depends on you to help protect them from COVID infection.

There are many personal reasons to get vaccinated – the vaccines for COVID are very effective and their risks are minimal, much less than from getting COVID itself. With infection and hospitalization rates decreasing dramatically in much of the country, you may feel that COVID is something you are less likely to get and less serious if you get it, but recent data show that our success beating COVID has been primarily among the vaccinated and that among the unvaccinated, rates of hospitalization and death have not decreased over the past few months. Approximately 300 people still die each day from COVID, and nearly all COVID deaths are among the unvaccinated. There are many personal reasons to get vaccinated, but if not for you, then consider doing it for those around you. In addition to protecting the immunocompromised and those unable to get vaccinated themselves, getting vaccinated also keeps you from being the breeding ground for new variants of COVID that may be more difficult to control.

As a country, we value our individual freedom, but we also know the value of cooperation. Numerous Nobel laureates, including John Nash whose life was chronicled in “A Beautiful Mind”, have advanced our understanding of how and in what ways we do what is best, not just for ourselves but cooperatively for others as well. July 4th is not a celebration of our individual freedom; it is a celebration of a collective freedom from tyranny and oppression, a freedom that some Americans continue to fight for to this day. As you weigh the risks and benefits of COVID vaccination, consider the benefits that extend beyond yourself to the many millions of people like my wife, including some you probably know, who depend on the rest of us to help protect them from COVID. Our collective freedom from this pandemic depends on us considering others as well as ourselves.