I unexpectedly got my COVID-19 vaccine on Sunday, and I’m pretty sure I’m happy about it.
Of course, I feel very lucky that I was able to get the shot at a time when millions are waiting, trying anxiously with much frustration, to get theirs. About two weeks after this shot, the data suggest (even before my second shot in 4 weeks) that I will have a very high immunity to the virus and that I will have protection against the risk that I will spread it to others.
That’s great. I’m grateful to my wife, who hustled online to get me the appointment, and to the two Walgreens pharmacists who were being run ragged Sunday afternoon to jab as many arms as they could.
But I have been walking around the past couple of days with mixed emotions. Was it a mistake to get the shot? Am I comfortable with the ethics of the vaccine? Am I comfortable with the possibility of unknown long-term side effects of a brand new vaccine technology? Should I feel guilty for getting it before others?
The first question everyone asks me is how I qualified. It would have made a better column had I just dedicated a month to eating only fried chicken and Sweet Frog so that I could qualify as obese, but I took a less interesting route.
I am a catechist at my local parish. That is, I teach Sunday school. Specifically, I help teach second graders who are preparing for their first confession and first Holy Communion. I have been teaching the children since September. In Maryland, teachers qualify under phase 1B.
While I had previously preregistered with the governments of Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Maryland, under the “media” category (which is 1C in both municipalities), my wife on Saturday morning spent about an hour using the CVS and Walgreens websites. The only CVS with appointments available was in Oakland, Maryland.
If you live in Maryland or Pennsylvania, you may know Oakland as Deep Creek Lake. Deep Creek is Maryland’s only lake, and it’s two hours away. It was also Maryland’s only CVS with any vaccine appointments at all. So, my wife early Saturday booked my appointment for Wednesday. Driving to Appalachia for a shot seemed odd, but my first reaction was “I’ll get a good column out of it.”
Alas, my Garrett County reporting trip would have to wait, as an hour or two later, my wife clicked her way to a Sunday appointment for me in Adelphi, Maryland. That’s in Prince George’s County and only 20 minutes from my house.
I secured a letter from my pastor certifying that I teach children at the parish. I expressed some doubt to my daughter: Do I really meet the standards the state laid out for teachers, given that I’m a volunteer who teaches only once a week? My daughter pointed out that I have been in the classroom with students more this year than most of my county’s public school teachers, all of whom have been eligible for weeks.
I’m also coaching T-ball after Easter. Maybe having a vaccinated coach will make some virus-wary parents more likely to enroll their children. This will bring the good of our parish community more fully to more families.
In general, I’m a busy guy and a social guy. My wife and I send our children to three different schools and are involved these days with three different Catholic parishes. I coach and I teach and I have two jobs. Some might call me a potential superspreader (although I seem to have gone a whole year never getting or spreading the virus). Mathematicians have argued that vaccinating superspreaders early conveys massive benefit.
As you can see by the amount of time I’ve spent justifying my getting a vaccine, I feel a bit guilty about it. Maybe I shouldn’t. More than two months ago, I wrote that getting vaccines out in the perfectly “fair” order should not take a back seat to getting the vaccine out to as many people as possible:
“That’s now one more person who is very unlikely to get sick, which means one fewer person is very, very unlikely to infect anyone else, which means his close contacts are less likely to get sick, and, in turn, their close contacts are less likely to get sick. In other words, vaccinating anybody slows the spread and protects everybody. Also, that means one person who is less likely to take up a hospital bed or the time of contact tracers later on.”
After scheduling my appointment, my wife got a call from the CVS around the corner from our house. They had a leftover shot they would have to throw out. She and others had lobbied the CVS the week before to create a waiting list, and now, her turn came. She ran over and saved a shot from getting wasted.
Data I’ve seen suggest that 12 days after the first shot of Moderna, I’ll have very robust immunity.
For my wife and I, that 12-day mark will be Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, just before an Easter weekend when we had hoped to have religious and social gatherings. Easter will be a full two weeks, and so, while we’ll have to wait for our second shots and then another couple of weeks to be “fully vaccinated,” we’ll go into Easter with greater peace of mind and more joy.
But mixing with that peace is some anxiety about the ethics and prudence of the shot.
Messenger RNA vaccines are brand new. The Pfizer and Moderna shots are literally the first two mRNA vaccines in the world. They were approved in an expedited time frame.
I’m a conservative guy. By temperament, I tend not to be an early adopter of things. Intellectually, I try to always remember that unprecedented things often have unexpected consequences, and those consequences are very often negative. Also, I think modern man overestimates his ability to predict the long-term effects of his actions.
All of this makes me worry about the vaccine I just got.
Also, there’s the ethical problem with the vaccines. Moderna, like Pfizer, used human cells to test its vaccine. Those cells are from a well-established cell line that was first created 50 years ago, from the kidney of a child who was aborted. Am I now participating in the economy of killing and harvesting babies?
I spent a week over Christmas researching, thinking, and writing about this. I reached out to the scientist who had created the cell lines 48 years ago. I consulted friends who had served on the President’s Council on Bioethics. I read arguments from priests, bishops, and even the Pope for and against taking the vaccines.
I concluded that while the vaccines are ethically tainted, the connection to the evil of the abortion is so remote that it’s acceptable to take the vaccines. To be clear, there are no cells of the aborted child in these vaccines.
What’s more, the scientist who first made the cell lines from the child’s kidney cells wasn’t directly involved in the abortion. This makes Moderna’s and Pfizer’s use of the cells to test the vaccine what Catholic teaching calls “remote material cooperation in evil.” This cooperation isn’t good and should generally be avoided. But unlike intrinsically evil actions, this is the sort of evil that can be weighed against other goods and evils.
In no way does it justify the abortion of that Dutch baby 48 years ago to say that some good (even a great good) has come from the cells harvested from him or her posthumously. It would have been better had she or he been born, even if that meant no vaccine. You can’t justify killing a baby to save any number of lives.
But given that she or he was killed, and given that scientists made an immortal line of cells from the baby’s kidney, it’s a judgment call whether benefiting from those cells is morally licit.
Many of my Catholic family and friends judged that it wasn’t worth it. I judged, as did the Pope and most U.S. bishops, that doing my part to stop the spread of this killer virus was a great enough good. If more immunity ends the shutdowns, if it brings any parents back to church or T-ball, if it gets main streets and schools open sooner, it’s a great good to get vaccinated.
Though still, I felt a pang of doubt on Sunday night. I asked my wife: Did we put too much weight on the value of getting vaccinated? For healthy 40-year-olds, the coronavirus almost never results in hospitalization, much less death. Infection rates are low in our county, and the weather is warming up.
Then, I realized that maybe I wouldn’t have weighed inoculation so high if not for my personal and geographical political realities.
My county government is lockdown-happy. They lock down too much for too long. They even tried to lock down our children’s Catholic schools. My efforts against the virus, including my decision to get the vaccine, are largely an effort to strip my county government of any excuse to continue coming after our freedoms.
Come Easter, I imagine I’ll be 100% glad that I got the shot. Until then, I live with some doubts, a sore left arm, and the hope that this pandemic and these horrible lockdowns will be over very soon.