Vaccination is not an individual choice, Louisiana doctor says

Medical director of Louisiana’s largest hospital says we need to keep the overall community in mind

By: - December 13, 2021 7:58 pm
Vaccination is not an individual choice, Louisiana doctor says

School children wait in line for immunization shots in the 1940s at a child health station in New York City. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Part of the misinformation swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic is the notion that vaccination is or should be an individual choice, but the truth is that vaccination is a community choice, according to Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.

Speaking as the featured guest at Monday’s luncheon of the Baton Rouge Press Club, O’Neal — an infectious disease expert — discussed her experiences treating the coronavirus and the toll it has taken on society over the last two years.

In September, the COVID-19 pandemic became the deadliest in U.S. history, surpassing the estimated 675,000 deaths due to the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918. The death toll is now inching toward 800,000, climbing by an average of 1,000 deaths every day, O’Neal said. 

Every vaccine, whether for polio, influenza, measles or COVID-19, was born out of a public health crisis, O’Neal said. A public health crisis is a community problem that affects both the health and the economy and has a solution that requires a collective response, she said. 

“Collectively, the United States decided a long time ago that we would no longer have polio wards and we would no longer have kids who have measles and mumps — we would no longer have kids who are forever changed because they have meningitis due to mumps,” she said.

O’Neal said vaccination is a community choice, though some mistakenly believe it is an individual or personal choice. Although each person must act to take the vaccine, O’Neal said there are things that the community should do to encourage and ensure vaccination, such as requiring the COVID-19 vaccine to attend public schools.

The disinformation from politicians, “influencers” and others who are not infectious disease experts should not be used to shape public health policy, she said. O’Neal pointed to Attorney General Jeff Landry’s decision to invite anti-vaccine advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to give a speech rife with disinformation to the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee.  

“Last week somebody came into our state and spread false messaging,” O’Neal said. “They were not an infectious disease doctor, they did not work for CDC, they did not work for LDH, and they weren’t one of our government elected officials…but they came here and they spread false messaging, and I don’t understand why we listen.”

The messaging from public health experts could also be better, particularly when they tell people to “talk to your primary care doctor,” she said.

“Most people don’t have one,” O’Neal said. “They’re not accessing care on a regular basis at all. So to access care to go and get a vaccine felt like an individual decision when, in fact, it should be a community decision.” 

O’Neal said overall society is not treating the pandemic as seriously as it should be. At Our Lady of the Lake hospital, patients admitted with a heart attack have a death rate below 4%, whereas the death rate of COVID-19 patients has never dropped below 8.5%, she said.

“This is as serious as it gets, but we’re still not treating it that way,” she said. “We’re being swamped by a disease that we have the tools and we can stop, but we’re choosing not to.”


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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.