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April 1, 2021

The CDC’s Dr. Jay Butler on Vaccines, Pastors, and Churches

"Be willing to roll up your sleeves to document that you've received the immunization."
The CDC’s Dr. Jay Butler on Vaccines, Pastors, and Churches
Image: Wheaton College Billy Graham Center

Dr. Ed Stetzer: How would you encourage pastors, church leaders and fellow Christians to see the importance of the vaccine, see it for their own health in some cases, but also to see it as a way love their neighbor? How would you encourage them to communicate and articulate?

Dr. Jay Butler:

First of all, be a leader.

I would encourage everyone to take a vaccine selfie, or to have somebody else take that picture. If you get nervous when there’s a needle going through your arm, I’d encourage you to take that picture as a way to show your leadership and reassure your congregation that the vaccine is safe.

Another way to offer encouragement is to work with your local or state health department to see if your church facility might be something that could be used as a vaccination site. Whether that’s on a Sunday, such as after a worship service or during the week, this is something else that churches can do to support their communities.

Now, in terms of the, the reservations that people may have about receiving the vaccine, I hear two arguments. Oftentimes, they're unsure if it's safe. Back in December, when the first MRN vaccines became available, the line I heard actually from a number of my healthcare colleagues was “You go first.”

That’s where I think the leadership is important.

Be willing to roll up your sleeves to document that you've received the immunization.

Sharing your experience is important because I do think people want to know what is it like to receive this. I'll be very honest, these are vaccines. Some people take it all in stride. Other people feel pretty bad for a day or so, particularly after the second dose. So share those experiences. Ultimately when people see you feeling quite normal again after a day or two, I think that's quite reassuring.

Now that we have well over a hundred million Americans who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, the data is really strong that these are safe vaccines. We had some of the early reports of severe allergic reactions, and now we have a more stable data that suggests that these really are quite uncommon reactions. And so that's a very encouraging.

Were the Vaccines Rushed?

The other concern that we oftentimes hear is that this was rushed, or there were corners cut in how we got these vaccines out to the public so quickly. And I think it's important to recognize there were three things that happened that helped make these vaccines available so quickly.

First of all, was the technology of the M-RNA vaccines.

This is a vaccine technology that has existed for a couple of decades now, though this is the first time it's been used in a broad population-based way to provide immunizations.

These vaccines are really remarkable in that you don't actually need to grow out the virus; all you need is the genetic sequence for the virus. And, we particularly note the sequences that drive the production of the proteins that the immune system recognizes as not a part of the self, to be able to create a vaccine that can develop a robust and protective immune response.

The second thing that helped make the vaccines available very quickly was the fact that basically the risk to the manufacturers was ameliorated by the government.

The government did this by pre-purchasing the vaccine before we knew for sure whether or not the vaccines would be safe and effective. That was a bit of a gamble. There was a possibility we could end up with millions of doses of vaccines that would never be administered to a human being, but the trials actually were quite remarkable, in terms of showing high efficacy for these vaccines.

Certainly, as we look down the road, I think it it's a game changer. For instance, an influenza vaccine that would be 95% effective, particularly in the elderly, is a concept that just really excites me as an infectious disease physician and someone who's very interested in being able to protect all people, including the elderly, as I continue to advance towards that stage myself.

The third area that helped make the vaccines available so quickly is a little more unfortunate, but it's the fact that this pandemic didn't fizzle out by any means.

The people who enrolled in the trials were in communities where there was quite a bit of transmission of COVID-19. So as a result, it didn't take that long to be able to have the statistical power to show the efficacy of the vaccines.

So those three things really aligned to bring a vaccine to the public in record time. As I mentioned, cutting red tape, I believe the other powerful tool was back after the anthrax attacks. About 20 years ago, there was a consideration of what regulatory processes might need to be fast-tracked in the event of any kind of public health emergency. This led to the creation of the Emergency Use Authorization or EUA. That is a process that allows the FDA to be able to review the data very quickly and make decisions about whether or not the vaccine or any kind of a product that can intervene in a public health emergency is safe enough. This is based on the available data, and effective enough to justify their use short of all of the processes that normally need to be gone through to license a drug or a vaccine for general use.

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The CDC’s Dr. Jay Butler on Vaccines, Pastors, and Churches