And the winner of the 2022 Pandemic Persuasion Award goes to … Dr. Nirav Shah.

Monday morning, as he has so many times since COVID-19 first hijacked our lives two years ago, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention took an hour out of his busy day to appear on “Maine Calling,” the daily call-in program on Maine Public hosted by Jennifer Rooks.

Dr. Nirav Shah

Normally when Shah does these and other appearances, he touches on a wide array of issues – the latest research, the ever-escalating numbers of Mainers who are sick, hospitalized or deceased, the crushing burden on our schools, our hospitals and places of business.

But this time was different. Monday’s program, at the good doctor’s request, focused on people who after all this time are still not vaccinated. The goal was not to condemn them, caricature them or, as many of us can’t help but do, complain about their role in prolonging this public health nightmare.

Rather, Shah simply wanted to listen to them. And, brave man that he is, tackle their demons one by one.

It was must-hear radio – a master class in the art of gentle persuasion. If you didn’t tune in live, it’s well worth a replay online.

Two callers stood out for me – “Ethan from Saco” and “Sean from Berwick.” One gave me a headache. The other gave me hope.

Let’s start with Ethan.

After the obligatory reference to how guys like Shah “play fast and loose with the data,” Ethan laid out his three main concerns about getting vaccinated.

One was his deep-seated distrust of Big Pharma. If the pharmaceutical industry can bring us the opioid crisis, he posited, then nothing good can come out of its efforts to develop and distribute vaccines against COVID-19.

Next up was Ethan’s concern about “antibody dependent enhancement,” or ADE, in which a vaccine can actually make a disease worse by inhibiting the immune system’s ability to target the infectious virus. Its only link to COVID-19 – if you can even call it a link – is a comment Dr. Anthony Fauci made about vaccine testing in general way back in March of 2020. The comment has survived, but the broad context in which Fauci made it was long ago jettisoned by the anti-vaccine movement.

Finally, Ethan trotted out his piece de resistance: “leaky” vaccines.

The COVID-19 vaccines, he claimed, “are literally leaking out of wherever they were shot into your arm and going to other organs, spreading to other people and getting lodged in different places. This is our concern, Dr. Shah. This is what we’re worried about. This is why I’ll never get the vaccine. Even if they come pounding at my door, I will say no! I will not do it, Dr. Shah …”

My reaction to this trip down fantasy lane was much the same as a colleague who, upon hearing about the “leaky vaccines,” observed drolly, “That’s what the little Band-Aid is for.”

But not Dr. Shah. After saying he was glad Ethan called, he dispensed first with the Big Pharma-is-trying-to-kill-us theory: While some drug companies indeed have blood on their hands when it comes to the proliferation of opioids, Shah agreed, some vaccine manufacturers had no involvement whatsoever in the opioid crisis. Thus, Shah calmly suggested, “this is a situation where we don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush.”

Moving on to Ethan’s “more technical scientific concerns about the vaccine,” Shah conceded that such worries as ADE and leaky vaccines were perhaps worth considering two years ago when vaccine trials were still under way. But now, he said, they no longer merit serious attention.

Why not? Data – or more specifically, a total lack thereof.

“If the phenomenon that Ethan describes were of concern, we would have seen them manifest either in the clinical trials, or in the various follow-up trials that have been done, as well as at the population level,” Shah said. “We haven’t seen that. Instead what we’ve seen is the exact opposite – the vaccines performing exactly as we would hope for them to – lowering the risk of hospitalization by eightfold, lowering the risk of infection and, most critically, lowering the risk of death.”

Shah added reassuringly, “Final note, Ethan. No one will be forcing anybody to get the vaccine. No one will be pounding on your door. We’re here to talk and build trust. Not to go by force.”

Did Shah change Ethan’s mind? Probably not. Did he manage to beat back Ethan’s conspiracy theories without suggesting the guy had a screw loose? Impeccably.

On to Sean (apologies if misspelled) from Berwick, who actually contracted COVID-19 back in November and spent 17 “horrible” days in its grip.

Sean’s fear: If he goes ahead and gets vaccinated now, who’s to say some unforeseen complication won’t arise years down the road? For all the vaccines’ effectiveness against COVID-19, how can we be sure the shots won’t come back and bite us in some other way later?

Again, Shah expressed gratitude for the call, noting, “This exactly the kind of conversation I want to have.” Pushing back gently, he asked Sean how much time it might take to dispel his fear of a vaccine boomerang.

“I don’t know … maybe four years. I don’t know,” Sean replied. “I’m not a doctor. I’m just an average ordinary guy. And I’m afraid.”

With nary a hint of condescension, Shah proceeded with a two-minute tutorial on the difference between vaccines and other drug regimens – say, chemotherapy. While the latter actually disrupts how the body functions and can in fact lead to unintended consequences down the road, he explained, vaccines work “completely differently.”

“There’s really nothing in the vaccine that is even postulated to stick around your body for more than a couple of days or weeks,” Shah said. “So, there’s nothing in the vaccine that could even lead to those long-term side effects that I hear that you’re worried about.”

Back and forth they went a few more times. Doctor and caller wholeheartedly agreed that widespread politicization of the pandemic has only made a terrible situation far worse. Shah told Sean he respected “the fact that you’re thinking about this carefully and thoughtfully.” He added that “if you were my buddy or my cousin … I wouldn’t have any hesitation  recommending that you get the vaccine. I recommended the vaccine to my own mother.”

Then something remarkable happened.

“I’m glad that you were able to talk to me,” Sean told the very man many anti-vaxxers love to hate. “Maybe I will get the vaccine, especially now that you’ve explained to me that it’s not going to be a long-term thing.”

Hear that? Amid all the rancor over who’s vaccinated and who isn’t, it’s the sound of a quietly changing mind.

Chalk one up for Dr. Shah.


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