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Dr. Nathan Schlicher sees the devastation of COVID-19 daily. That’s why he wants everyone who’s eligible to get vaccinated.

Dr. Nathan Schlicher is a practicing emergency physician in Tacoma and the President of the Washington State Medical Association.

He and his family live in Gig Harbor. They’ve been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic like the rest of us for more than a year—missing soccer games and family gatherings. They’re happy those activities are returning, and life is looking a bit more normal. 

But Dr. Schlicher treats COVID-19 patients daily, and he’s concerned not enough eligible people in Pierce County are getting vaccinated. We caught up with him recently to talk about the importance of vaccination and ask him other questions we’ve heard from the community about COVID-19 vaccines.

Dr. Nathan Schlicher holds a sign encouraging people to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

When did you get vaccinated for COVID-19 and why was it important to you?

I got vaccinated on the first day it was available. I got Pfizer. As an emergency room doctor, we were the first cohort. I went in at 6:03 a.m. after my night shift and was probably patient 5 or so in our system. I’ve lived the past year-plus caring for people on the front lines of this pandemic and I’ve seen the devastation COVID-19 brings. Not only the loss of life that we’ve seen, but also the loss of quality of life that I think is far too often underreported. The devastation is real even if you are not one of the mortality statistics. I was there the first day believing the best way out of this pandemic and the best way to stay healthy is to get vaccinated.

You’ve been fully vaccinated since January. What has that been like?

It’s been great. We still take precautions. At mass gathering situations I still wear a mask to keep myself safe. But it’s been nice to gather with other vaccinated family members. All our family is vaccinated—grandparents and my siblings. We’ve been able to start to get back to something resembling normal life, which has been lovely.

Tell us a bit more about your family and what you’ve been through during the pandemic?

We’re over here in Gig Harbor. In a lot of ways, it’s been tough. We’re all on different schedules, so we’ve learned to adapt and work our way through the pandemic. We’re excited to hopefully see the other side of it. We’re definitely looking forward to taking part in more activities. My son’s done some after-school soccer this year, so that’s been great. I’ve been coaching my daughter’s Girls On the Run team. We’re starting to see the return of activities with some safety precautions. Getting back to those has been great. I participated in a triathlon recently with my wife, so that was a lot of fun. We’re looking forward to the return of life.

You talked earlier about the devastation of COVID-19. What have you seen professionally?

As an ER doctor, I’ve treated more than 100 COVID-19 patients over the course of the pandemic. I’ve seen the struggles. I’ve seen family members lost—sometimes multiple family members wiped out by this disease. I’ve diagnosed young people with heart failure and blood clots who are not able to be active like they were before the disease. I’ve seen the harm it takes on people’s ability to work and their economic livelihood. This disease unfortunately is not limited in scope.

How important is it that everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated for COVID-19?

It’s critically important. I hear repeatedly, ”If we get to 70% or 80% it will be good enough, so I don’t need to be one.” This thinking presents two problems. One, you can still get infected. Just because we get to community immunity doesn’t mean we’re going to necessarily avoid having the disease in our community. You can still get it even if we reach that magical goal. Two, we also know there’s a breakthrough rate. So, even if we get 70% of the population vaccinated, if a small percentage can still get it and 30% are still vulnerable we’re still close to a third of the community that can get it and that’s a lot to circulate. That’s a lot of people at risk. The other reality is the more we have circulating, the higher risk we have of getting a new variant that might be resistant to our vaccines. We don’t want to let this disease run rampant and let it create more problems and potentially become more dangerous. We’ve got to knock it out in every direction.

Speaking of variants, what is the latest on those and why do those make it more important to get vaccinated?

The South African variant may be somewhat resistant to the vaccine. Nothing  prevents another variant from forming that is completely resistant. We’re hopeful that doesn’t happen, but nature has a way of adapting. So, we want to reduce the ability for COVID-19 to spread and potentially mutate and adapt to the vaccine. Now is the time to get vaccinated.

What would be the difference between say 90% of people vaccinated vs. 70%?

I think we’d see the difference in the risk of having to deal with outbreaks and having to go back to some restrictions if we have a large pool of people that are exposed and infected. If we can get to that 90%, we can get the cases down to a handful and can hopefully get back to normal. That’s my hope in all of this. I think there’s a lot of upside. That’s what the vaccines are for.

Do you think the fewer people who get vaccinated, the better chance of getting another variant?

Definitely. Variation and mutation are crimes of opportunity. Mutations can’t occur if the disease stops circulating. Viruses and bacteria respond to the opportunity to replicate and the environmental pressures. They’ve got to be in the environment, and they’ve got to be replicating. If there’s no replication, there’s no risk. If there’s none in the environment, there’s no risk. All those things mean we want to get it under control and out of the community as fast as we can.

What about people who say they already had COVID-19 so they are protected?

The reality is I’ve seen multiple cases with people who got COVID-19 early in the pandemic and have gotten it again this year. So that’s just not true. We’ve seen those kinds of cases and I think we’ll continue to see that. We don’t know how long the vaccine will last. We may need a booster shot. We may not. We’re just going to have to see. But I can tell you, I’ve seen patients get COVID-19 more than once. If I’m going to pick a side that I want to be on, I want to be vaccinated to protect myself as long as I can.

Some folks are on the fence about the safety of vaccines. What do you tell people about that?

I tell people this technology has been around for 20 years. The vaccine is probably one of the most studied drugs in history. Hundreds of millions of doses have been administered. Think about this, the FDA approves cancer drugs and other medications sometimes with 5,000 to 10,000 patients in total. So, we’re talking about something that is incredibly well studied in comparison, has an amazing safety profile, and has much better efficacy than a lot of other vaccines. I wouldn’t get it if I didn’t think it was safe. I wouldn’t have my wife get it or my 12-year-old son get it if I didn’t think it was safe. It’s one of those times, if you trust your doctor and believe in science, then believe us when we say the vaccine is safe.

Most people generally do trust their doctors. What are some  other concerns you hear from people?

I hear people say they feel the vaccines were rushed. I walk them through the science and the data that again it is one of the most studied drugs we’ve ever administered. Additionally, I hear from patients who say they don’t think it’s necessary or that it’s all a hoax, and I try to share with them the real world experience I’ve seen and the loss of life and suffering. Some folks think they are not going to get COVID-19. They say they’re not going to be exposed. The reality is we don’t know where you are going to get it because it’s an aerosolized disease. You can get it anywhere, especially now that people aren’t wearing masks as much. There is a risk to all this.

What about people who say they aren’t opposed to getting vaccinated, but just haven’t done it yet?

I hear a lot of that. “It’s just not on the top of my list. It’s not a top priority. I’ll get around to it.”  I get that. Who wants to get healthcare if they feel like they don’t have to? Well, the reality is, if you’re worried about getting taken out of work for 2 weeks or worried about a family member or loved one who may be immunocompromised , then this is the time to do it for their health and your health and for your own livelihood and productivity. I encourage folks to move it up on their list of priorities. Drive-thru somewhere and get vaccinated. Set up a time at a local pharmacy or with your doctor. Whatever it takes! Get it done in the next month or so and get back to enjoying summer!

Find your dose.

Find your vaccination today at tpchd.org/vaxtothefuture. Everyone 12 and older is eligible. You can register or just drop in at any clinic and get vaccinated without an appointment.

If you need a ride to a vaccination site or can’t easily leave your home, we can help! Call us at (253) 649-1412, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 7 days a week.

Your role to stop the spread of COVID-19 remains critical.