As an herbalist, an integrative physician, an organic farmer, and a social justice activist, I love to promote food- and plant-based strategies for maintaining wellness. It’s literally our business at Five Flavors Herbs. As a physician in the safety net, taking care of some of our most vulnerable community members, I am also trained in and accustomed to prescribing life-saving drugs and medical interventions. During the coronavirus pandemic, I have continued to work in a community clinic and in our local hospital, all the while constantly researching the virus so that I can provide the best, most up-to-date advice to my patients as well as to my friends, employees, and family members. While scientific research and my own experience as a physician and herbalist attest to the value of supporting overall health with natural remedies, the best defense for both individuals and society against a specific, contagious, and deadly contagion like COVID-19 is vaccination.
Witnessing a tsunami of misinformation about the pandemic and the vaccines from both ends of the political spectrum, including many voices in the natural health community, has prompted me to speak up. I don’t expect to change the minds of individuals who have already made up their minds about vaccines. But I do hope that some people who are on the fence, nervous about a new technology, or afraid of side effects—especially people who generally try to use natural methods to promote good health—might consider my experience and perspective when making their choice.
Why Did I Get Vaccinated for COVID-19?
I see vaccines as imperfect but overwhelmingly beneficial technologies that save lives all over the planet. I grew up using herbs and homeopathy on an organic farm, but I also received childhood vaccines. Similarly, both of my children are fully vaccinated (given on a spread-out schedule to monitor for any potential adverse effects along the way). I have received the flu shot annually for at least 10 years and on multiple occasions was the only person in my family to evade a really bad bout of influenza, which allowed me to care for them and continue working as a physician. This January, I was fortunate to receive both doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. I got “the shot” because I want to protect my family and my patients from a potentially deadly disease, and because I need to stay healthy to take care of them! The only side effect I experienced was a sore arm, and I recognize my luck given my co-workers’ and patients’ experiences with severe flu-like symptoms. I feel even more fortunate to have been protected when my husband contracted the virus towards the end of that same month and I did not, even though he was not able to self-isolate from me.
Should COVID Vaccinations Be Mandatory?
I strongly believe in personal autonomy and healthcare freedom. I am not a proponent of forced vaccines. I did not support California SB 277 (which removed the personal belief exemption for vaccines required for entry into public schools). I am not an apologist for “Big Pharma,” and I resoundingly criticize the profit-driven model that makes the coronavirus vaccines and many other life-saving treatments out of reach for poor people around the world, including those in our wealthy nation.
However, I believe that with freedom comes responsibilities: to heed the guidance of experts such as scientists and physicians; to read scientific literature and to question what we read online; and to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. When it comes to infections and vaccines, this means taking in all the available information (even when it’s less than we would like), weighing the pros and cons and choosing the greater good. Many individuals who choose not to vaccinate their children enjoy the blessing of good health; are educated about healthy diet and natural remedies; can afford to homeschool their kids; or live in a society with clean drinking water and access to advanced medical care. Choosing not to vaccinate puts others at risk who may not share those privileges: babies, elders, immunosuppressed folks, or single parents who can’t afford to miss work to care for a sick child.
Are COVID-19 Vaccines Safe?
The mRNA vaccines currently available in the United States are very safe, though not without potential risk. The technology behind the vaccines has been under investigation for nearly 30 years and was able to advance so quickly due to earlier scientific discoveries, government funding, the removal of conventional roadblocks and delays in testing, and the prevalence of the disease itself. The ingredients are marvelously “clean” compared to other vaccines that contain adjuvants and preservatives such as aluminum and thimerosal, and the ingredients are published online. The vaccines are also very effective; studies showed 92-95% protection against symptomatic infection after the second dose, which has been confirmed by data from Israel (where most adults over 60 are now vaccinated). Efficacy of the current vaccine may be lower against emerging mutant strains, and the duration of immunity is yet unknown; annual boosters may be required not unlike the influenza vaccine.
Now that millions have been vaccinated worldwide, initial safety data from the Pfizer-BNT and Moderna vaccine trials are being compared with real-life events. As in the trials, many recipients experience local mild effects such as a sore arm, while up to 70% have mild to moderate systemic effects after the second vaccine. These symptoms are believed to result from the robust immune response elicited by the vaccine, and respond well to simple home remedies like acetaminophen, rest, and herbal teas. Severe allergic reactions occur in a small number of individuals (ranging between 2.5 to 5 cases per million recipients), and no cases of anaphylaxis have resulted in death. About one-third of these individuals had a history of anaphylaxis from other causes (a prior vaccine, food, bee stings, latex, etc.), making it easier to identify individuals at risk for an adverse COVID vaccine response and take precautions accordingly . Another emerging complication may be thrombocytopenia, a condition where the immune system attacks platelets (an important component of clotting) that can result in internal bleeding. Thirty-six cases, including one death, have been reported to date in the US, and causality with the vaccine has not yet been established. Generally, the reports of death after vaccination have not been linked definitively to the vaccine and are very infrequent (0.003% of recipients). Resources for tracking side effects after the vaccine include signing up for VSafe with your first shot, or using the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.
If you have a history of a severe allergic reaction, a platelet disorder, an autoimmune condition or are immunosuppressed for any reason, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, please consult your healthcare practitioner before signing up for a shot. Also, if you have more questions than I can answer in this post, great places for solid information include:
- Centers for Disease Control
- National Institutes of Health
- Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
- Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy
If you’d also like sound advice on staying healthy during the pandemic (and beyond) from other herbalists with decades of experience, I recommend checking out Sevensong, Paul Bergner, Dr. Christopher Hobbs, Lily Mazarella, Rosemary Gladstarr, and Nicole Telkes, among others!
What Are the Risks of NOT Getting Vaccinated?
I urge my readers to put these statistics in the context of the effect of the pandemic on our families, communities, nation, and people across the globe. By mid-February 2021, we have seen nearly half a million deaths in the US out of 27 million cases, and nearly 2.5 million deaths worldwide (where the 100 million cases are sorely underreported due to lack of testing capacity, especially in developing countries). Depending on the country and on how data is reported, the case fatality rate is approximately 2%. By comparison, the 2019-2020 flu season saw 38 million cases, 400,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths from influenza in the US. There really is no comparison with any other recent global pandemic since the 1918 flu pandemic, which resulted in 50 million deaths worldwide, 675,000 of which occurred in this country. By now, almost all of us know folks who have gotten infected, been seriously ill, experienced lasting side effects, and/or died.
Choosing not to vaccinate (and/or adhere to strict social distancing measures) allows the virus to continue replicating, leading to mutations that cause transmissible and deadly variants. As illustrated in a recent Washington Post article, quickly vaccinating a majority of adults may be our only chance to stamp out a pandemic before it mutates beyond what the current vaccines and post-infection immunity can protect us from.
If you are fortunate enough to have a chance to get vaccinated, consider accepting the opportunity to help halt the spread of a potentially deadly (and definitely mutating) virus. We all live in overlapping, expanded circles of humanity, and our decisions ripple far beyond what we can anticipate. It is time to shift from fear and self-centeredness to collective responsibility and care for each other, both by embracing vaccines and also by continuing to wear well-fitting masks, keeping physical distance, washing our hands, and using our diverse natural tools for staying healthy.
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Written by Ingrid Bauer, M.D., M.S.: With experience that bridges Western and Eastern medicine, Ingrid brings rigorous scientific knowledge to Five Flavors Herbs. A graduate of the UC Berkeley/UCSF Joint Medical Program and the American School of Herbalism in Santa Cruz, CA, Ingrid integrates plant-based medicine into mainstream healthcare. She is passionate about bringing holistic care to people from all walks of life. Her master’s research focused on Latino health beliefs and traditional medicine at a bilingual clinic in Oakland, CA, and she teaches workshops about herbal medicine at conferences and schools.