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Giving thanks for ‘the fence at the top of the cliff’

The story behind the COVID-19 vaccine is almost too good to be true; fortunately, it is true

Dr. Tamara Sheffield from Intermountain Healthcare poses for a portrait outside Utah Valley Hospital in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Dr. Tamara Sheffield from Intermountain Healthcare poses for a portrait outside Utah Valley Hospital in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Feb. 3. March 3. Nov. 12.

This Thanksgiving, those are the dates in 2021 I’m giving the most thanks for. Nothing else really comes close.

They are the days I received my COVID-19 vaccination shots.

They set me free.

Like the rest of the world, I went on lockdown March 11, 2020, the day Rudy Gobert sent us all to separate corners. I was in the category described as “vulnerable” — over 65, with a compromised immune system. In my case, a left lung blocked by a diaphragm muscle that stopped working 13 years ago when a bout with the flu knocked out my phrenic nerve. No one needs to tell me what viruses are capable of.

So I masked up and hunkered down. Luckily, my job allows for a good deal of autonomy. My office is wherever my laptop is. I had that going for me. I also had a family that went to the grocery store, the hardware store, the drug store, and in general protected me like domestiques protecting the lead rider in the Tour de France. I wouldn’t see the inside of our neighborhood Smith’s for a year.

Still, it reeked. Not only did it restrict getting out, seeing people, socializing, but there was this pesky little realization that if you caught the virus you might die.

When I heard America’s doctor, Anthony Fauci, proclaim that a vaccine could be developed within a year, I jumped on the Fauci bandwagon before I could even pronounce his name. A lot of people liked to dissect everything Fauci said, argue about it, attach conspiracy theories to it. All I heard him say was “one year.” I set my clock by it. I could last a year.

Then, lo and behold, it happened. On average, a vaccine takes 11 years to be approved. Polio took 50 years. The previous record-holder was mumps at four years. This one took slightly more than 11 months. The story behind how it happened is miraculous in and of itself. It just so happened that a scientist with the National Institutes of Health named Barney Graham had been looking for a new virus to test his experiments on. It just so happened he latched onto the first coronavirus cases in China before anyone knew what they were. It just so happened the government threw billions at the NIH and a new drug company named Moderna to launch Operation Warp Speed and produce the vaccine in record time.

Once the vaccine became available in December 2020 I got in line. It was a long line. I couldn’t get an appointment in Summit County until much later in the spring. When my doctor told me he’d heard the Smith’s pharmacy in Wendover was taking reservations, I went online and signed up. I was there an hour early for my 12:15 p.m. slot on Feb. 3 to get my first Moderna shot. Exactly four weeks later, I drove the 300-mile round trip to get the second one.

I was liberated. I felt confident. Empowered. Emancipated. I could walk among the masses again. To celebrate I went skiing on March 15, the day they said I was fully immunized.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, on Nov. 12. After getting my booster shot — adding yet more fortification — I found myself wondering where I’d be — where we’d all be — if not for the vaccine.

I posed that question to Dr. Tamara Sheffield. Sheffield is the head of preventive medicine for Intermountain Healthcare. Her life is about immunizing people so they don’t catch something. She is the fence at the top of the cliff rather than the ambulance at the bottom.

What if the vaccine hadn’t been developed; what if we were still waiting?

“Oh, it would be devastating,” she said without having to stop and think about it.

For one thing, she pointed out, those who are vaccinated wouldn’t be looking at having nonsequestered Thanksgivings this year. Families and friends wouldn’t be planning get-togethers, connecting once again. The vaccine, she said, “has allowed us to change our lives back to a closer semblance of what it was before.”

For a second and much more important thing, a lot more people would be getting a lot more sick.

Fully vaccinated people — and that’s 54% of Utahns at last count — reduce their risk of catching COVID-19 by 10 times, according to the doctor, and while that percentage shrinks over time, a booster shot brings it right back to full strength.

“The people who are getting sick, who are in our hospitals, in our ICUs, are not the vaccinated people, it’s the unvaccinated,” said the doctor who oversees immunization efforts at Intermountain’s 24 hospitals. “And those that are breakthrough cases (vaccinated individuals who still catch the virus) tend to have a less severe case.

“The science is solid, and not just the science, the day-to-day experience is solid; what we see daily coming into our hospitals, vaccinated versus unvaccinated.

“The more people you can get vaccinated, the fewer cases, and it changes your population spread. It’s not necessarily that we get enough immunity that this will all go away, but that we get enough that it becomes endemic rather than pandemic. It becomes more like the other diseases we have to deal with. It’s not novel any more; it’s not something we’ve never been exposed to.”

Regrettably, vaccinating a significant majority of the population is proving to be more of a marathon than a sprint. “If we could only help people figure it out better,” lamented Sheffield. “A lot of individuals have fears; fears I don’t believe are founded but they are truly their concerns and you have to respect that they’re making the best decisions based on what they believe and who they trust. I just wish they would trust different voices.”

Sheffield calls the vaccine’s emergence nothing less than “a providential situation where we were given the right tool at the right time for the problem at hand. It truly is a blessing. We just have to use the tool the best we can to try and protect the population.”

And if the vaccine isn’t fully embraced, there is no question it has significantly lessened the threat and the fear for many. Count me among those who are super grateful for the fence at the top of the cliff.