ROCHESTER, Minn. — Dr. Gregory Poland is all through with watching his words.
"We are now in a desperate but unrecognized race of variant versus vaccine, of ignorance versus knowledge, of disease versus health," said Mayo Clinic's ubiquitous face of COVID-19 messaging on Friday, Sept. 10.
"And we are very much losing the game."
It was an unusual dose of tough love for the vaccinologist, but it would be for any mouthpiece of the button-down health system, a brand known for white-glove health care services and disciplined clinicians skilled at speaking with only equanimity and reserve.
But then again, we are very late in the day, in COVID-19 time.
Poland delivered these blunt remarks during a community forum hosted on Zoom by Mayo Clinic Health System in Southwest Wisconsin. The noon event was billed as an opportunity to "discuss the scientific truths supporting COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the harm posed by untruths."
But it didn't take long to cut to the people-problem: How the ongoing danger of COVID-19 now has little to do with the virus, and a lot to do with the gullibility of the American citizenry. How our high-powered health care is only as good as the receptivity of patients to being helped.
"The major distorting factor turns out to be human behavior," Poland said of the ongoing outbreak, pivoting to call out "the false presupposition of the democratization of expertise." In other words, "the idea that everybody's a scientist," as Poland put it. "And that everybody's ideas about science are equally valid."
Because they're not.
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It was still early in the hour. Poland, who is also a seminary student, called for "a robust epistemology," a term from the philosophy books for the study of what constitutes truth, then capping it off with phrasing from the Book of Matthew.
"Remarkably, though there are ears to hear and eyes to see," he said, "people have turned a blind eye, a deaf ear to this information (that vaccines are safe and effective). We have about 30% of American adults who say there are no circumstances under which they would accept the vaccine," he said.
"That's a really remarkable thing to even imagine happening in a country that has more literacy, more money ... than any population in the history of mankind."
Faced with hard data and soft propaganda, America, he suggested, can no longer tell up from down — and to a degree below that of survivors of state oppression.
"When we look at vaccine hesitancy," he said, "I think it's shocking to realize that we are just below Russia in terms of people trusting the scientific information they receive."
Calling the 27% of hospitalized with COVID-19 who are children "a stunning number," Poland laid blame at the feet of sloppy thinking.
"SARS-COV-2 is a science problem, a medical problem," he said. "If you abandon science as a way to determine truth, you enter into a world of hurt, as we have seen case after case after case in the media of people who reject vaccines for very uninformed reasons, and suffered devastating consequences."
The questions Friday were short and the answers were rote.
Can you say for sure that in five or 10 years we won't discover the vaccines cause neurological problems? Or infertility?
"By definition you can't answer that question," he replied. "We have not had five or 10 years experience with this. So the only thing we can do is appeal to the science."
All that being said, Poland added, "there is no vaccine whose side effects don't manifest within minutes," he said.
"The longest is about six weeks ... We're now almost a year out now. We have an extraordinarily robust surveillance system in the U.S. Other than the known issues, no new ones have popped up, including miscarriage, stillbirth and pregnancy related issues."
"The major distorting factor turns out to be human behavior ... the idea that everybody's a scientist, and that everybody's ideas about science are equally valid."
— Dr. Gregory Poland, Mayo Clinic vaccinologist
Is it true, another person asked, that vaccines alter your genetic code? Can they rewrite your DNA?
"No. ... I wish we knew how to do that," he joked, "because there are a lot of diseases that we could cure if we knew how to do it. But it doesn't work that way."
Why is mainstream medicine ignoring cheap and effective treatments like ivermectin, asked another.
"The data ... there's the principle trial, the active six trial, and a host of other trials that are studying repurposed drugs," he said, ivermectin being one of them.
"To date. All. All. All of those studies have concluded there is no benefit from ivermectin. In fact, there is harm in the way the population is acquiring animal ivermectin and using it outside of medical prescription."
Asked to share tips on refuting misinformation, Poland seemed at a loss.
"The reason I don't have any hair is I have torn it out over 40 years trying to discover the reasons behind this."
In an earlier exchange, he tried to paint as simple of a picture as possible.
"It boils down to this: You get to choose which risks you want. That ignores your risk to other people, but you do. You only get three choices, whether you make a choice or not. Either you will get infected ... or you'll get vaccinated, or you'll go into complete isolation.
"Do harms come from vaccine? Yes, they do. Do they exceed those of not getting the vaccine? A definitive no."