“Do vaccines work or not?”

Last week, I saw that query posted by a smart, open-minded conservative friend of mine on social media. It came in response to news that Los Angeles County decided to reimpose indoor mask mandates. Knowing this person, it may have been an earnest question or, more likely, a bit of sarcasm.

But with many Americans still unvaccinated, it deserves an answer.

Yes, the COVID-19 vaccines work.

That is the most direct, important takeaway. The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots have done what they are supposed to do. They have helped protect millions of people across our state and country.

Mario Nicolais

But my friend’s five-word tweet made me realize that lingering questions about the efficacy of vaccines has more to do with how people understand what it means for a vaccine to “work.” 

To me, vaccines “work” when they protect the vast majority of recipients from life-altering and life-threatening illness. It means reducing the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 and its variants to a statistically insignificant number. It means ensuring that the severity of any potential infection is reduced and limited.

Unfortunately, many people seem to believe that to be considered to “work,” the vaccines must make every one of its recipients entirely immune to any COVID-19 strain. That definition is impractical, uninformed and dangerous.

Any argument that vaccines must be 100% effective in all circumstances ignores the science and history of vaccinations. For example, the history of the seasonal flu vaccine is filled with changes and setbacks. After early success by Jonas Salk (later famed for his polio vaccine), different strains and outbreaks challenged the vaccine’s success.

Even today, the flu vaccine does not prevent infection from the flu in all instances. But as a secondary benefit, it reduces the severity of illness, necessity of hospitalization and correlated deaths in a dramatic manner. It has saved millions of lives.

While you might get a case of the flu after vaccination, you are exceedingly unlikely to die from it. The same is true for COVID-19 vaccines.

The spike in Los Angeles that led to the return of mask mandates proves that very point. As the more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 has spread quickly, hospitalizations have been limited to unvaccinated individuals.

Colorado’s increasing numbers are reflective of the same pattern. The Delta variant has quickly swept across the state over the past month. And it has done so primarily through unvaccinated individuals.

Mesa County, which recently hosted the Country Jam concert festival, is a perfect example. Due to its conservative tilt, the county is home to a significant population of anti-vaccination individuals. Only 42% of the population is fully vaccinated. Yet the data demonstrates just how at risk they remain.

According to Mesa County Public Health, 7,820 unvaccinated people have tested positive compared to only 347 who have been fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated individuals account for 421 hospitalizations and 98 deaths. Vaccinated patients represent a 90%-plus reduction; 36 hospitalizations and 10 deaths.

That is one county. The same thing is happening across the state.

Worse? It is avoidable. The vaccines are free and readily available. In fact, they are so accessible that the mass vaccinations sites created by the state have either closed or begun to wind down services. The demand has simply dried up and there are plenty of other locations providing shots in communities across the state.

Anyone who has not received a COVID-19 vaccination at this point has chosen that path.

The siloed, often partisan tilt to our collective consumption of news has created significant gaps in vaccination and protection. There are plenty of people who still question the life-saving efficacy of vaccines not even a year old yet. 

But the objective facts are clear. 

The COVID-19 vaccinations work.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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