By Stephanie Goodling
It has now been a year since COVID-19 reached North America, and soon, the long-awaited vaccine will be available across the United States. Dr. Bill Markson, president of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley’s Maimonides Society, is a cardiologist, but he is still taking the opportunity to talk to every patient who enters his office about the vaccine. He has also invited local immunology experts to speak on the subject at the next Maimonides event on Feb. 21.
“Our current crisis and absence of normality really won't change until we achieve some sort of herd immunity,” said Markson. That will only happen in one of two ways – by allowing everyone to contract coronavirus, which will lead to even more illness and death than the over 300,000 lives already lost this year in this country alone, or by having a majority of people vaccinated. So ultimately, “it’s only people getting vaccinated that will help save people.”
The good news is that the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved so far have efficacy rates that are much higher than the flu vaccines which millions receive each year.
Markson explained that both of the first two vaccines to be approved, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, use very unique methods.
“Traditional vaccines use either a live but weakened virus or a dead virus, inducing immunity when your lymph cells are later able to recognize and catch the same particles and not let them get into your cells,” said Markson.
While some of the COVID-19 vaccines waiting to be greenlit operate this way, not all do. In contrast, some of them use a different technology, where proteins which are very similar to those of coronavirus are introduced, essentially mimicking the virus without actually introducing it to your system.
“This new technology [existed before, but] has never been tried on this scale,” said Markson.
While some of the early vaccines offered require two doses, there are some developing which will only require one. Markson noted that there are vaccines for other diseases, such as shingles, which require two doses and are currently given regularly, so people should be used to the idea of following up for their second shot.
While Markson admits that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about COVID-19, he is confident that as 2021 unfolds, we will keep learning more about the best practices available. In the meantime, he says he is “absolutely” getting the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available.
“This is a real public health crisis,” said Markson. “Based on everything we know so far from well-scrutinized data, the risk from the vaccine is extremely low, and the benefit of all of us having it is extremely high. Very few of us in our daily lives live completely risk-free lives – we drive, we cross the street, we take reasonable risk in order to live. And I think we should be taking reasonable risk for society to live. The benefit of not spreading coronavirus to a vulnerable person and their family is really great.”
If 70% of people get the vaccine, Markson estimates that we can reach herd immunity by late spring or early summer.
As to questions about vaccines in relation to Jewish law and practice, Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, who formerly led Congregation Sons of Israel in Allentown and who has lectured on the subject, gave some insight.
“Jewish law, in general, is very much in favor of vaccination, and in general, the Torah is filled with requirements to look after one’s own health and the health of others. This includes preventive actions to avoid becoming ill, and vaccination very much fits into that picture,” said Torczyner.
The protocol in Jewish law for determining medical interventions includes looking to the medical establishment to see what they think. This is something that goes back to the Talmud, according to Torczyner. If somebody becomes ill on Yom Kippur and there is a question of whether they should eat, seeking medical advice is part of the protocol there, he explained, and that approach runs all the way through to present day when determining what it is safe.
“When the benefits far outweigh the risks, it becomes the duty of every Jew to be vaccinated,” said Torczyner.