Responding to Malhotra on COVID: What we owe each other

Jaden Block

I am appalled by the twin maladies of vaccine hesitancy and resistance — that some in their anti-science fervor continue to endanger the health and livelihoods of millions of Americans. Nevertheless, I strongly disagree with the suggestion made by Niko Malhotra ’24 in his op-ed last week that due to the widespread availability of vaccines, the vaccinated Williams community should not account for its impact upon the unvaccinated in deciding on public health measures. The basis for his argument is ill-founded, and the implications of his conclusions go unexplored.

The main claim of Malhotra’s piece is that the public health burden of COVID rests directly on the unvaccinated, due to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “providing a nearly 100-percent protection against hospitalization, allowing the most vulnerable of society to live without the persistent fear of becoming severely ill.” This claim unravels on many fronts.

First, the vaccine efficacy rate reported by Malhotra is disingenuous at best and willfully ignorant at worst. Hospitalization rates are not the end-all be-all of a disease, for as long as cases continue to fester in our communities, the pandemic will continue to pose a risk. The ability of vaccines to reduce cases is a far better metric to use when it comes to eliminating fear, especially when an infection can come with longterm effects. According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine study, the efficacy of the Moderna vaccine of reducing symptomatic illness hovers around 96 percent, while the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine lags behind at around 88 percent. While for high-risk populations the vaccine is undoubtedly a huge help, the suggestion that it is enough to eradicate fear of becoming ill is just simply untrue. To eliminate rational fear of this disease would require more robust containment measures that the wider American polity is unwilling or unable to commit to. At present, the most vulnerable of society aren’t living without fear; the most vulnerable of society are terrified of leaving their house.

As Malhotra points out in his piece, ICUs are overflowing across the country. While he correctly assigns blame to the unvaccinated in creating this problem, he fails to recognize that the hospital overflow affects not only the unvaccinated but also the vaccinated. As of Oct. 4, 49 percent of ICU beds are filled at Berkshire Medical Center, and 80 percent of ICU beds are filled in Massachusetts on average, according to The New York Times ICU capacity tracker. When ICUs are overloaded, the burden unduly falls upon those with health conditions unrelated to COVID who are unable to receive adequate medical attention and care. What is the vaccinated Williams community’s responsibility to them?

It is important to remember that we are in an ongoing pandemic that is constantly evolving. Loosening social restrictions within the College would assuredly create more cases, even with the College’s vaccine mandate. Some peer institutions, such as Connecticut College, have had to implement periods of quarantine after COVID outbreaks, despite vaccine mandates similar to ours. While COVID vaccines lower the risk of infection, they do not altogether get rid of it. Indeed, even minor cases can have lasting impacts: A recent study indicated that 36 percent of patients who experience COVID symptoms report symptoms between three to six months after initial diagnosis. This issue is not isolated to the unvaccinated: A study out of Israel of breakthrough cases among health care workers indicates that 19 percent had symptoms six weeks after infection. This phenomenon is known as long COVID, and the long-term effects are unknown. As someone who suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and whose symptoms appear to mirror that of long COVID at this early stage of medical research, I cannot in good faith stand by and allow this potentially life-altering disease to spread.

I fear that belaboring the statistics and phrasing of Malhotra’s op-ed may detract from recognizing its other problems. The implicit assumption that all those willing to get the vaccine can and have is patently untrue, with children, some cancer patients, and those allergic to vaccines still unable to get protection. Do we not have a responsibility to these groups, who weren’t able to choose their vaccination status?

We also do have some responsibility to the people who regrettably continue to reject vaccination. I would also be remiss not to mention the targeted disinformation campaigns by political actors motivated by profit who attack vulnerable communities and encourage resistance to vaccines. It is questionable whether one can make an informed, conscious choice in such an environment of misinformation. As people die because of political deception, is it really ethical to stand idly by or potentially expedite these deaths?

This is not a time for absolving ourselves of responsibility and tearing down restrictions, as Malhotra suggests. Instead, it is a time for recommitting to protect children and the immunocompromised, even if that comes at the relatively minor cost of continuing to follow COVID regulations.

Jaden Block ’24 is from Boyds, Md.