From the Flight Surgeon: Facts about COVID-19 vaccinations

Cmdr. Matthew Doubrava receives his first round of the COVID-19 vaccine at NAS Patuxent River’s medical clinic Dec. 30, 2020. Doubrava had his picture taken to show people that recommended treatment strategies are not something physicians just talk about; they do them too. “I am satisfied the vaccine is safe and has an excellent chance of being effective,” said Doubrava. “It is our best shot — no pun intended — at beating the effects of COVID on our nation.”

To ensure that the women and men of Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) continue to remain diligent, flexible, and focused on delivering our best, we must remain focused on fundamentals. One of the most overlooked fundamentals is our own health. Amid a global pandemic that has claimed over two million lives worldwide, none of us can afford to take our health — or the health of our friends, families, and colleagues — for granted.

That’s why Cmdr. Matthew Doubrava, NAWCAD’s flight surgeon, wants you to have the facts about COVID-19 vaccinations. There’s a lot of misinformation out there — and some of it is deadly. Let Doc answer your questions about why you should seriously consider getting vaccinated when it’s your turn.

Q: Although COVID-19 vaccinations are voluntary, why should Navy personnel take advantage of them?

A: Many young people, particularly, don’t see the benefit of the vaccine for themselves. They hear that if they get the COVID-19 virus, they’re less likely to get symptoms. I tell them that yes, that’s likely the case, but therein lies the danger. If you have the COVID-19 virus and you don’t know it, you can spread it to others. So you’re really taking the vaccine for the benefit of people around you as much as for yourself.

The vaccine works by reducing the viral load in your body. In doing that, it also reduces the risk of transmission between people. Because the lower the viral load in your body, the less viral load there will be to transmit to others.

Q: Some people are concerned that the vaccines were developed too quickly without sufficient testing to ensure their safety. Can we be sure the vaccines are safe?

A: The data are very clear: the vaccines are safe. Yes, the approval process was fast, but that’s because instead of running trials consecutively, the manufacturers ran them in parallel, which cut down the timeline significantly. And there was no shortage of volunteers. Pfizer had 40,000 volunteers sign up overnight. Moderna — the vaccine we use here at Pax River — had 30,000 volunteers. Normally it takes years to get large numbers of people to sign up for clinical trials. And those are the reasons why they were able to roll out the vaccines so quickly.

In terms of safety, out of 14 million doses of the Moderna vaccine given to the public in the first month, almost 7,000 reactions were reported, 640 of which were determined to be severe but were treated immediately and none proved fatal. For the Moderna vaccine — again, that’s the vaccine being offered here on base — for every million doses the average is 4.2 cases of anaphylactic shock. Well, the flu vaccine has about one to two cases per million, while the pneumococcal vaccine has about 9.8. So right now, the Moderna vaccine is right in the middle of the pack, which is on par with other vaccines that are licensed by the FDA.

Q: Why are people hesitant to get vaccinated?

A: I think that vaccine hesitancy — that’s what medical professionals call it — revolves around a couple of issues, one of which is historical and the other is social.

Historically, there is a legitimate concern about the consequences of medical experimentation on military personnel and civilians in the past, particularly involving communities of color. The unethical experiments conducted on African American men as part of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, for example, are a very clear example of how medical professionals can abuse people’s trust in terrible ways. So it’s very understandable that today young people would be mistrustful of authorities who are encouraging them to get vaccinated.

We can’t fix the past, but we can ensure that safeguards are in place for the present and the future. For example, investigators involved in human subject research have to go through strict training. All levels of government, both military and civilian, are now very transparent about human research safety.

Socially, there is a tremendous amount of information that is coming through our phones and social media channels, and very little of it is vetted. It can be very difficult to separate accurate, factual, information from opinion, and agenda-driven misinformation. That’s proving to be harder to fight against, but it requires people to seek out authoritative sources like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Johns Hopkins and Harvard University websites, and even science and medical journals if you’re particularly hardcore about it. I follow Science and the New England Medical Journal myself.

Q: Why is vaccine immunity more effective than natural immunity gained through exposure to the COVID-19 virus?

A: The difference is that natural immunity is effective against one virus variant, but the COVID-19 vaccine works against the outer shell that the virus travels in, and most of the virus variants have similar outer shells. The way I like to explain it is to think of the virus variants as different flavors of Coke. Let’s say you come down with a bad case of Diet Coke. When you get better, you’re going to have natural immunity against Diet Coke. But what happens when the next pathogen comes along and it’s Coke Zero? Would whatever made you immune to Diet Coke protect you against Coke Zero? Maybe, but also maybe not. Vaccine immunity works against the Coke cans themselves. It doesn’t matter what’s in the can; as long as the can is aluminum and says “Coke” on it, you’re protected. So the vaccines should also help against some of the variants we see appearing.

Q: Some people believe that as long as they continue to observe other preventive measures, they don’t need to get vaccinated. Is that belief accurate?

A: Think of wearing a mask as like wearing your flak jacket or body armor. It will protect you from the enemy, but it doesn’t defeat the enemy in its own right. To do that, you need an offensive capability, which is the vaccine.

Vaccines are allowing us to take the initiative, and we don’t want to lose that momentum. The Battle of Midway turned the tide in the Pacific, but what if the Navy had gone home after the battle? But we didn’t go home. We seized the initiative at Midway and we kept on driving across the Pacific until we won the war, and this is the same idea. Vaccines are giving us the overwhelming advantage we need to win the war against COVID-19.