Joyce Hooley, MD

Joyce Hooley, MD

(Editor's note: Opinion columns in The Mountaineer are strictly the view of the author and are placed in the "Opinion" section online.)

I am a recently retired pediatrician who practiced many years here in Western North Carolina as well as in Ghana and Ethiopia.

I am writing in response to the opinion which appeared on Feb. 12, with the title, “Questions Linger About COVID-19 Vaccine.” Since coronavirus vaccines are the first messenger RNA vaccines to be put into public use, and have not yet been in use for many years, as have other vaccines, it is understandable that many people are feeling cautious, worried and even fearful about these vaccines.

Unfortunately, however, several statements were worded in such a way as to allow her readers to draw mistaken conclusions. I wish to draw attention to just a few of these.

The author wrote: “To date, there have been more than 500 deaths and more than 10,000 adverse events reported to the government database Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. (VAERS.)” This statement may lead a reader to think coronavirus vaccines have “caused” 10,000 adverse events and 500 deaths.

However, reporting an adverse event or death to VAERS does not establish that the event or death was caused by a vaccine. If a pattern of similar reactions is reported, this will trigger an investigation, which may lead to the type of study that can substantiate a possibility of causation. That is the purpose of the VAERS system.

The author also referred to “a Harvard study a few years ago,” (a reference which she does not footnote so that her reader could read the study) which found “… only about 1% of all vaccine reactions were reported to VAERS-suggesting that the true rate of reaction is much higher than is being reported.”

The reader should remember that since most reactions to vaccines are mild — a bit of arm soreness and a day or two of low-grade fever — yes, only a very small percentage of all reactions will be reported.

What are the chances of dying should you actually get COVID-19? Ms. Presson wrote that “According to the CDC, the COVID-19 recovery rate for individuals under the age of 70 is 99.999% and for individuals over the age of 70 is around 96%.” In fact, the CDC site does not actually report age-specific COVID-19 “survival” rates, nor does it post age-specific mortality rates due to COVID-19, because true mortality and survival rates would require a denominator of all people who actually got infected, even those with very mild cases.

That data is not available because many mild cases are currently not confirmed by testing and therefore never reported. We can observe however, that there have now been 27.7 million cases of COVID-19 reported in the US, and 485,000 deaths determined to be caused by COVID-19 infection. This results in an estimated average chance of dying, if you have a positive COVID-19 test, of close to 1 in 50.

The risk of death due to COVID-19 of course varies greatly across age groups and according to pre-existing conditions, so an individual’s chance of dying from a COVID-19 infection may be lower, or much, much higher. And then one must remember, among those who survive, there is a significant risk for long term disabilities from which some people may never recover.

The author also misrepresented CDC communications when she wrote, “The CDC has already stated that the vaccines will not keep recipients from getting COVID nor will it keep vaccine recipients from spreading COVID to others.” In fact, what the CDC states on its website is: “Covid-19 vaccination will help keep you from getting COVID-19. All COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States have been shown to be highly effective at preventing COVID-19. …COVID-19 vaccine may also help keep you from getting seriously ill even if you do get COVID-19. …We don’t yet know whether getting a COVID-19 vaccine will prevent you from spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 to other people, even if you don’t get sick yourself. CDC will continue to update this page as we learn more.”

Regarding Vitamin D, it was stated “Vitamin D….and other supplements have been shown to be very effective against COVID and other viruses.”

She cited a study published in 2020 in the Nutrients as her basis to claim that Vitamin D insufficiency “may account for almost 9 out of 10 COVID-19 deaths.” The words “may account for,” can easily be misunderstood to mean “may have been the cause of,” and that is not in fact scientifically established. Vitamin D deficiency is prevalent in the US (approximately 40% population wide and higher in social-economically underprivileged populations, approximately 60% among nursing home and hospitalized patients,) and therefore you will see this condition in many people who are hospitalized for COVID-19.

Studies have also associated Vitamin D deficiency with chronic conditions such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome which are in turn associated with worse mortality rates from COVID-19.

Ongoing studies are attempting to uncover the effect of supplementing vitamin D on the course of the COVID-19 disease and on the immune response to COVID-19. Sunlight exposure, specific foods, and moderate supplementation can help prevent Vitamin D deficiency.

In response to the final assertion, that “…it is entirely possible that the new technology in these vaccines may cause autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, insulin dependent diabetes, and other serious and possibly fatal health challenges,” one would have to say anything is possible. It’s also entirely possible, and much more likely, that they won’t. Previous allegations that various childhood vaccines caused autoimmune diseases did not hold up when subjected to scientific studies.

As readers weigh risks and benefits, they need to remember that it is most likely that the long-term safety of these vaccines will be upheld in the long run, and that if they choose to not get vaccinated and end up infected, they then run a significant risk for death or long-term disability.

If they are young and healthy and do not get vaccinated because they have a lower relative risk for death, they may pass the infection along to someone who is not young and healthy. They may inadvertently bring death and disability to someone else.

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