Freddy Caldera, DO, MS
Francis A. Farraye, MD, MSc, MACG
January 15, 2021 –The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed healthcare in many ways including the incorporation of telemedicine into clinical practice. The pandemic has also forced gastroenterology clinicians to be adaptable in the way they provide care to patients due to stay at home orders or COVID-19 surges. Additionally, many gastroenterologists have needed to take on new professional or personal roles by working as hospitalists due to COVID-19 surges, or playing the role of a teacher to assist their children with homeschooling. We have demonstrated that gastroenterology clinicians can successfully adapt to an ever-changing health care environment.
Gastroenterology clinicians should strongly consider accepting one final role to help end the COVID-19 pandemic. GI clinicians should become COVID-19 vaccine advocates by personally receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and sharing their experience with their staff, patients, and family members.
They should also consider learning about general vaccine safety, COVID-19 vaccine development, and clinical trials. Our recent article published in Clinical Gastroenterology & Hepatology summarized everything a gastroenterology clinician needs to know about COVID-19 vaccines. By acquiring this knowledge, we will be able to make a strong recommendation for our patients, friends, family, and co-workers to accept a COVID-19 vaccine when a vaccine is offered. All health care workers and providers need to help dispel myths and misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines perpetrated on social media.
The overabundance of information online and offline has resulted in an “infodemic.” Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a vast amount of misinformation about vaccines on social media resulting in vaccine hesitancy among patients with inflammatory bowel disease and other conditions seen in our gastroenterology practices.
Vaccine hesitancy has not improved during the pandemic but only worsened because political polarization has resulted in general mistrust of public health and governmental agencies. This has resulted in widespread public unease of a COVID-19 vaccine once they become available to the general public. Over the past several months, we have spoken with many patients and health care workers about COVID-19 vaccines. They have expressed concern about the speed of vaccine development and whether steps were skipped in assessing the safety and efficacy of these vaccines before being released for use.
It is not widely known that coronavirus vaccine development has been going since the initial severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China in the early 2000s continuing with Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2012. Thus, vaccine discovery has been going on for over 15 years, which is typically the longest period in vaccine development.
The goal of Operation Ward Speed (OWS) was to produce a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. OWS did not skip any steps but only truncated the downtime between trial phases that usually occurs during typical vaccine development because industry partners need to assure that a vaccine is not only effective but also marketable. Furthermore, OWS took away all the financial risk from pharmaceutical partners and assisted them to harmonize protocols and use existing clinical trial networks. To further assure patients, providers should consider sharing that Moderna in collaboration with the NIH had designed their COVID-19 vaccine on January 13, 2020. This was before COVID-19 becoming a household term and still, the vaccine did not receive emergency use authorization until December 2020 after it was found to be safe and effective in a large phase III clinical trial of over 30,000 individuals.
To end the pandemic, experts such as Dr. Fauci and others have stated that 70 to 80% of the general population will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. If we hope to end this pandemic soon, educating patients about COVID-19 vaccines and dispelling myths and misconceptions cannot fall solely on primary care providers. This is a task for all health care providers including specialists such as gastroenterologists, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants in our practices.
We take care of many patients with chronic medical conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease who value the opinion of their specialty clinicians. Thus, we need to start making a strong recommendation for a COVID-19 vaccine to our patients now and educating them to overcome vaccine hesitancy. This will assure that our patients will accept a COVID-19 vaccine once it’s available to them.