Column:Fear the Vaccine

Robert LaMay died on January 28, 2022. He was 51 years old. He worked as a Washington state trooper for 22 years. He retired from his job in October 2021, after Governor Inslee of of Washington state declared a Covid-19 mandate affecting all state troopers, except those who qualified for religious and medical exemptions. Trooper LaMay refused to be vaccinated on religious grounds, asserting that he was confident that his faith would protect him and his family from the pandemic. He resigned in protest over the vaccine mandate and famously signed off on his last tour of duty by announcing, “Governor Inslee can kiss my ass.”

His comments were recorded by a passenger in his patrol car and picked up by various ‘antivaxxer’ sites and news agencies.  He had his 15 minutes of fame when he was interviewed by Laura Ingraham on her ‘news’ program. Ms. Ingraham celebrated Mr. LaMay’s stance, and their exchange solidified Mr. LaMay’s standing as an antivaxxer celebrity. He was widely quoted and frequently interviewed.  Potential candidates for political office sought his endorsement. Robert LaMay died from complication of a Covid-19 infection. He is survived by a wife and four children.

LaMay’s experience has been repeated hundreds of times in our country. Numerous law enforcement officers and military personnel have died of Covid-19 after refusing to be vaccinated. In 2021, more police officers died from Covid-19 than from traditional line-of-duty injuries.  In other words, the virus killed more police than bullets, knives, car crashes or clubs. These men and women face daily threats on their lives and are trained and equipped to protect themselves to the extent possible, and yet many of them insist on declining a simple, safe, free protective device, called a vaccine.

As far as I can tell, most Americans attribute this objection to vaccine mandates to distrust of authority and insistence on freedom to choose. Simply put, we Americans do not accept people telling us what to do. The argument goes that these vaccine mandates infringe upon our constitutionally-guaranteed freedom. That the Supreme Court of the United States long ago heard and rejected these arguments is irrelevant. The antivaxxers argue that that gang of nine is just another bunch of wannabee politicians trying to tell us what to do.

But this ‘I won’t be told what to do’ explanation for vaccine resistance does not ring true. In fact most Americans are only too eager to be told what to do. Many rely on religions to tell them what to do. Some join universities, charities, or militias and abide by the mandates of those organizations. Some join the military and law enforcement and follow without hesitation the orders given to them. And so why is there resistance when a potentially life-saving, medical innovation is adopted by the government we elected?  I believe it is from fear.

Two nurses on Long Island in New York State were arrested a few weeks ago and charged with selling fake vaccination cards.  About one million dollars in cash was recovered from their premises, and a ledger was found that documented receipts of $1.5 million dollars in connection with their alleged card sales over the prior three months.  Investigators believed that the pair charged $220 for each fraudulent entry on a vaccination card, but they did offer a discount for fake cards completed for children. They entered the phony injection records into governmental vaccine data bases, thereby inflating the number of New Yorkers who appeared to have been vaccinated and allowing the recipients of their pay-to-play vaccine records to access facilities, including schools, that denied entrance to the unvaccinated. Assuming the cash they had on hand was not from another illegal scheme that they had concocted, simple arithmetic indicates that thousands of people availed themselves of this expensive deception, rather than get a free injection. The notion that these thousands opted to participate in an illegal scheme just to demonstrate their insistence on self-determination is absurd. Our fellow citizens bought into this scam out of fear, not defiance.

Fear and rejection of medical innovations is ancient and ongoing. When Queen Victoria of England learned from her physician that she could deliver her next child with an anesthetic that would block the pain, her religious and political advisers objected. These men argued that as the head of the Church of England she and all women were obliged to bear their children in pain. The Bible said they must. To do otherwise would destroy the church and the monarchy.  She ignored their concerns and had the ether. The church and the monarchy survived. 

Part of the rejection of medical advances is the inevitable feeling that it is too good to be true and consequently must be false. Dr. Barry Marshall won a Nobel Prize for discovering that stomach ulcers were caused by infections and could be cured by antibiotics, but it would be more than a decade before most physicians embraced his recommendations and changed the way they treated stomach ulcers. A nineteenth century, Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, realized that physicians were spreading disease to women who had just delivered babies by not washing their hands before examining the vulnerable women. His commonsense recommendation that physicians should wash their hands in a solution that reduced the spread of infection was viewed as insulting by his colleagues, and a half-hearted endorsement of Semmelweis’s observation by Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior, a professor at Harvard Medical School, almost cost Holmes his job.

Even in our country, a nation built on unbridled innovation, change, especially in terms of medical practice, routinely faces resistance.  Perhaps, it is in our genes. After being convinced to adopt practices and procedures that have worked well enough for years, we are naturally suspicious of suggestions or demands that we should change. We can all understand Robert LaMay’s reluctance to place his faith in a medical miracle, the safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine. He risked his life as a state trooper, and for that he should be praised and we should be grateful. He lost his life to an avoidable illness and from that we should all realize that sometimes what appears to be too good to be true is, nonetheless, true.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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