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Immunization and Insurrection: Will the Better Angels of Our Nature Prevail?

January 09, 2021

By Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

I had my first COVID-19 vaccination this week. While I was waiting in line at the Veterans Administration hospital where I work, I was listening to live coverage on the radio of the violent insurrection at the Capitol building, where Congress had gathered to certify the Electoral College vote. The poignancy of this moment for me could not be overstated.

The nurse who administered my shot spent several minutes going through the paperwork, explaining risks and getting consent. I’d been waiting almost a year for this moment, and it was here at last. I was ready, eager, and excited.

After I received the injection, I went back to listening to the reports from Washington. I learned that people with guns had entered the Capitol, took pictures of themselves occupying the dais of the house, vandalized the building, and someone had been shot. Congress and their staff had been evacuated by the police. If the vaccination was a reminder of how we can come together, this shocking attack on the seat of our nation was a reminder of how quickly that which binds us can also be torn asunder. The events of recent days widened our cracks into chasms, and I was reminded that derision is quickly followed by the dehumanization that begets hatred and violence. 

We humans are complex creatures who can hold, Shiva-like, the simultaneous capacity for tremendous creation in one hand and woeful destruction in the other. In times such as the year from which we have just emerged, these forces are palpable, and it is not always clear which will prevail.

Abraham Lincoln, 160 years ago and on the eve of the Civil War, spoke of this tension within us in his 1861 inaugural address when he said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Who or what are these better “angels of our nature”? As the nurse cleaned my arm with the alcohol pad, I thought of the thousands of people who came together to make this moment possible. The researchers, the virologists, the biostatisticians, the quality control workers, the people that make sure every “t” is crossed and every “i” is dotted in a clinical trial, the people who ran the machines that mass-produced the vaccine, the couriers who transported it, and those who volunteered to be study subjects. I thought of the people who wrote the protocols and the pharmacist who filled the syringe.

It was through these better angels of our nature, the clarity of purpose, intelligence, ingenuity, and grit that we could create this vaccine. Contained inside in that syringe was a half milliliter of hope that promised me the possibility of being able to return to in-class teaching, dinner parties, movies, and concerts, of hugging my parents and my kid going back to school, of being able to see patients in person instead of on a screen, of going to a grocery store without a surgical mask, and of not having to live in fear.

Yet, on the day I received this, another 4000 people in the United States died from the virus, bringing the total to more than 350,000 people. And horribly, this astounding number only accounts for less than 20% of the total international death toll of 1.88 million people as of this writing. Those 1.88 million people would have loved to have had the opportunity I had that day.

My vaccination, afforded to me early on account of me being a health care worker, is just the start of what needs to be done. There are billions more people who will need this vaccine if we are to wake from the nightmare that has been COVID-19. And, despite the vaccine, we know there are still more challenges ahead both for our bodies and the corpus of the nation. It is still dark, and dawn has yet to break. To paraphrase Robert Frost, we still have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.


Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC was trained as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He is board certified as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. He has completed extensive training in Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy at the California Institute for Integral Studies and recently published a book chapter on this modality in The Casebook of Positive Psychiatry, published by American Psychiatric Association Press. Currently, he serves as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing, where he teaches psychopharmacology, and is an Attending Nurse Practitioner at the San Francisco Veterans Administration. He has expertise in psychopharmacological treatment for adult patients and specializes in the treatment of affective disorders and PTSD. As a steering committee member for Psych Congress, he has been invited to present internationally on improving medication adherence, cannabis pharmacology, psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, grief psychotherapy, treatment-resistant depression, diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, and the art and science of psychopharmacologic practice.

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