Commentary: Rick Dennison is heroic for stance on health freedom

Sadly, the last 17 months have acted as the largest assault on our civil liberties in modern times.

U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Vikings. (Minnesota Vikings/Facebook)

Our health freedom is under assault. As a physician, I’m ashamed to see this happen in our country and our state.

The NFL recently took a hard-line stance on COVID vaccinations for the upcoming season: coaches and staff need to be vaccinated or their teams could face draconian punishments for positive tests, including forfeited games, lost salaries and possible termination. The players union remains silent, refusing to speak up for players who are raising concerns about mandatory vaccination. However, a few courageous individuals are taking a stance despite these risks.

Vikings assistant coach Rick Dennison recently had his job threatened because he stood up for his right to determine what goes into his body. Players, including DeAndre Hopkins and Cole Beasley, have also expressed concerns about the NFL vaccine mandate.

In a free society each individual is responsible for determining the costs and benefits of any medical treatment — the decision to get vaccinated is no different. My job as a physician is to help my patients make informed choices for themselves. It is not my role, nor the role of employers, government or society at large, to make decisions for any individual.

To understand the flaws in the NFL policy it’s important to understand the risks and benefits of the vaccines.

The short-term risks are fairly well defined at this point. Generally, the short-term risks are low — but rare complications like heart inflammation (myocarditis) or paralysis (Guillain-Barre Syndrome) have recently been convincingly associated with vaccination, even though they were not initially apparent in the approval studies, nor in the early stages of vaccination. While these risks remain low, they are not zero. The fact that these rare, but real, side effects took time to become apparent has given many people reasonable pause. What else don’t we know?

The longer term side effects are simply not known — and will not be known for a few years until the initial approval studies conclude. This is primarily what gives many low-risk, younger individuals significant concern. The typical retort from the medical establishment is that with all prior vaccines the longer term side effects were seen within two months. This might be a reasonable point if the most common COVID vaccines weren’t a wholly new class of vaccine. Furthermore, the proven but rare side effects like blood clots, myocarditis and paralysis were not seen within this mythical two-month window. We will have a much fuller picture in 12-24 months of the scope and magnitude of short, intermediate and long-term risks of vaccination.

On the benefit side of the ledger, vaccines are limited to reducing the risk of developing severely symptomatic COVID, hospitalization and/or death in patients who have never been infected. Despite what some experts claim, any potential benefits of vaccination in a population of people recovered from COVID-19 is not supported by the FDA approval data. There is some evidence that vaccination may reduce the chance of transmission, but this benefit is highly variable based on how much COVID is circulating in any given community. Presently, those numbers are well off their earlier peaks.

The main documented benefit of vaccination is to reduce the chance of severe illness in the vaccinated individual. The level of this benefit varies based on the risk of death or serious illness from COVID — very low in the young and quite high in the old. Vaccinated individuals who have developed symptoms can, and have, transmitted COVID to other individuals. Asymptomatic, unvaccinated individuals appear to spread COVID only rarely. From a public health standpoint, the vaccination status of every NFL team is irrelevant: the players are not sitting next to the fans in the stands; they’re on the field. The risks accrue only to other players, coaches and staff. These individuals should be made aware of their risks, and the potential benefits of vaccination, and be allowed to decide for themselves if they wish to be vaccinated. Those who forego vaccination should understand the risks of that approach.

Fundamentally, individuals have the right to decide what goes into their bodies. In the case of COVID, the vaccines appear to be effective enough at protecting individuals from severe illness that the choices of another are immaterial. Regardless of vaccination status, symptomatic players, coaches and staff should be tested and held out of any team activities while they have symptoms.

Coach Dennison is heroic in standing up for his health freedom at the expense of his job. What he puts in his own body is a decision that should be left up to him, not anyone else. It’s unbelievable that a statement like that seems out of the norm these days. Sadly, the last 17 months have acted as the largest assault on our civil liberties in modern times. It disturbs me to see the medical and scientific establishment eagerly demand the erosion of health autonomy based on a false argument that individual rights can be cancelled for some “greater good.”

Thank you, Coach Dennison, for standing up to the NFL. We are still the land of the free, and the home of the brave. Let’s keep it that way.