|A special Wellness Wednesday conversation with Dr. James Jarvis
We all think in screwy ways on occasion. One variation of this sort of error-in-thinking is called a cognitive distortion, which a recent Wellness Wednesday dipped into. That column took on the personal decisions we make around pandemic safety prompting one employee to suggest we also take a look at cognitive distortions specific to vaccines.
I took this up with Dr. James Jarvis, our Senior Physician Executive of Northern Light’s COVID response. As soon as we started talking about vaccine-related cognitive distortions it took him back to a conversation he’d had decades ago with a co-worker about a lifesaving vaccine which had just become available for a highly preventable cancer, a cancer of particular concern for young people.
“I remember when the HPV vaccine became available, a nurse who worked in my clinic and who came from a very conservative family wondered if it was right for her daughter whom she assumed would not have many sexual partners. I said, “You can’t control who she falls in love with, and certainly cannot control what that person did before your daughter meets him. This vaccine protects her from cancer, need for invasive exams, and may save her life. Is there any belief you have that matters more than that?” She and her daughter agreed to be vaccinated the next day.”
This co-worker very much wanted to believe that HPV would never have anything to do with her daughter based on what she wanted to be true for her daughter and what she wanted to be true about her daughter’s future partners. Fortunately, the sense of that one sentence – Is there any belief you have that matters more than that? -- was all it took to correct her vision.
It's a powerful question. To go along with that very useful question is Dr. Jarvis’ list of some of the most serious cognitive distortions around the vaccines being administered to combat the various strains of the COVID pandemic and how he would respond to them:
- A vaccine won’t matter if almost 50% of the US refuses to vaccinate. It won’t reach its full benefit, but it will have a significant impact and one we can’t afford to be cavalier about. We need to stem the amount of virus out there and this is one more tool to do it with.
- Once you’re vaccinated, you’re free to go back to your normal life: We will never get back to the normal we once knew. We will forge a new normal that will take time. We will continue to need to wear masks and remain physically distant outside of our households. This is a positive step in the right direction, but a step in a long journey.
- Vaccinations will need to be done seasonally, like the flu, and won’t be free after the pandemic ends: If there is a need for continued vaccination, Northern Light Health will continue to provide the vaccine, as we do with influenza vaccine. Insurance companies and the state and/or federal government will also likely have some continuing role. Regardless, the current vaccine has no out-of-pocket costs and is necessary in our fight against this pandemic.
- People are getting sick and even dying from the vaccine. The cure is worse than the disease: While some individuals have had allergic reactions to the current vaccines, we have not seen this in any greater number than any other commonly given vaccine. Most of these individuals had a prior history of severe allergic reactions. Anyone with such a history should alert the vaccination team and be monitored for 30 minutes after the vaccine is administered. To date, there is no confirmed death related to the vaccine, and they are considered to be very safe.
- I’m young so I won’t get sick: All we have to do is look the tragic news of Luke Letlow, a brand new 41-year old congressman, who died the day before he was to be sworn in. He will now always remain a congressman-elect and he leaves behind a wife and two young children
- Since I have no risk factors for severe complications I’m better off not taking the risk of getting a vaccine that hasn’t yet been in circulation long enough to know whether it’s going to cause us harm: We all have micro and macro reasons for everything we do. For instance, my micro reason for doing everything I can to prevent the spread of disease and not bring it home with me is in order to protect my daughter, a cancer survivor. Almost all of us can name one micro reason for getting the vaccine.
But we need to take a macro view of the situation as well. The macro view for vaccination surrounds us in ways we may not have considered. We never know who we will encounter and whether they are infected or have risk factors if they were to be infected by you. A single worker who comes down with COVID-19 can close a vital business. An outbreak at a nursing home stemming from someone attending a social event, can cost many lives. It is imperative that each of protects the community we live in.
There are reasons we are vulnerable to cognitive distortions. Stress is a huge factor, which a cognitive distortion can help mitigate by allowing us to think a more convenient thought that better suits our needs. The problem is convenience doesn’t equal reality. But that powerful question Dr. Jarvis asked his co-worker all those years ago could serve as a really useful checkpoint. Here it is again with a little adaptation specific to our current situation:
Is there a belief or circumstance that matters more than using every strategy available to us right now?