December 9, 2021, 3:47 p.m. ― Family physicians and other health care professionals throughout Wichita, Kan., like so many other communities, have struggled to convince those who are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine to actually get vaccinated. I’ve encouraged my patients to get the vaccine, filmed public service announcements, done media interviews and spoken to various groups, including some refugees who recently emigrated to the U.S. from overseas.
My results have been decidedly mixed.
Recently, I was asked by the Medical Society of Sedgwick County if I would speak to the men’s basketball team at Wichita State University. Most of the players on the team were not vaccinated at the time, and Isaac Brown, the team’s head coach, was interested in having a physician talk to them.
Wichita State is part of the American Athletic Conference. It is a Division I school, and the men’s basketball teams in the AAC are spread across multiple states in multiple time zones. Like other schools, Wichita State has issued advisories on COVID-19, as has the NCAA. Unvaccinated players may face more testing protocols. Quarantining away from the team is likely for unvaccinated players who are exposed to anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. This means that the potential remains for games to be delayed, rescheduled or possibly even forfeited as the season goes on.
Those are strong incentives for players to be vaccinated. Vaccination does not guarantee that a person will never test positive for COVID-19, but it reduces the risk.
Following a talk with Coach Brown, I went to WSU’s basketball arena late one afternoon and met with the coaching staff and team members. They asked a lot of questions, some of which those of you reading this have probably heard before. Isn’t COVID-19 just like the flu? Is the mRNA vaccine going to change my body in any way? Why did someone I know die two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine? Are the vaccines just for white people? Are they dangerous for Black people? Since I already had a COVID-19 infection, why should I take a vaccine? And many more.
I went over the latest data on the virus and the vaccines used to fight it. I explained the safety of the vaccines as well as the potential side effects. The players were attentive and engaged. Afterward, Coach Brown texted to inform me that the players were going to get vaccinated because they trusted me. The team members followed through on their promise, and I’m happy to report that the team is now 100% vaccinated. This is important for many reasons, especially when you consider that last season alone, the team had to postpone or cancel several games because of pandemic-related issues.
Wichita State is also taking steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In October, the school announced that masks would be required for all people on campus and inside Charles Koch Arena, where the basketball team plays its home games.
Many physicians and journalists have shared stories of COVID-19 patients who initially believed the misinformation and disinformation that has been spread about the vaccines but then, after they were infected, wished they had been vaccinated. Here, again, my results have, unfortunately, been mixed. I was happy to send home a 60-year-old patient who survived getting the disease, but I also cried at the loss of a 42-year-old patient who got COVID-19 while waiting to make the decision to get vaccinated.
COVID-19 does not respect age. I feel for my fellow hospital workers who struggle, get overwhelmed or get frustrated by the misinformation and excuses they hear. All the while, they have to ask themselves an ethical question: Why am I trying to save people who didn’t try to save themselves?
We know loving is hard. If you don’t believe me, ask Jesus. Or ask yourself: What have I done recently out of love for someone else? Pope Francis described getting vaccinated as “an act of love.” Love is a choice. You may not choose to love, but it also means that you’re choosing the consequences of that choice. Most often the choice is ours; however, the consequences are usually out of our control.
We also know that there are resources available for family physicians to talk with patients and discuss the benefits of getting vaccinated. The AAFP’s COVID-19 and COVID-19 Vaccine webpages have been particularly useful here. If you haven’t visited either of those pages recently, I strongly encourage you to do so.
Many vaccination conversations that family physicians have with patients and community members are not successful — at least not initially. But sometimes, as in the case of Wichita State, they make a real difference. It feels good knowing you have done your part to help others protect themselves, their families and their community. It makes us all better team players.
Maurice Duggins, M.D., is a physician faculty member at Ascension Via Christi Family Medicine Residency in Wichita, Kan., and a clinical associate professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.