Why wait? If you can get a COVID-19 vaccine, do it now: OPINION

The millions of Americans eligible for a vaccine shouldn't delay getting it.

The vaccine the world has been waiting a year for is now available to the general public, but research shows many of those eligible to receive it would rather wait.

In a recent Axios-Ipsos poll, only 43% of respondents said they would immediately get the vaccine when it becomes available to them, with the remaining 57% waiting weeks to a year -- or refusing altogether.

As a doctor myself, I spend a lot of time explaining to patients why there's no need to wait for more evidence -- in fact, delaying getting a vaccine could be dangerous.

Since the pandemic began, there has been misinformation and skepticism about the existence of the virus, how severe an infection can be, how to prevent transmission and about the safety of potential vaccines.

Vaccination is the best way to end the pandemic's devastation and return to normalcy.

The virus is here

Building up your immune system by vaccination is a race against time. With several new, highly transmissible strains of the virus emerging, a person's risk of becoming infected despite taking precautions -- wearing a mask, social distancing, thorough hand-washing -- may be greater now than it was in 2020.

Even if you're eligible and sign up for the vaccine today, some states like New York and New Jersey are estimating you may have to wait four to 14 weeks to receive your first shot. Delaying signing up only increases your risk.

Demand exceeds supply

Everyone on the planet, about 7.8 billion people, needs this vaccine, and even with many reluctant to get it, demand has outstripped supply.

The U.S. government has promised that everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one, but that doesn't mean there won't be supply problems.

In one Texas county, according to ABC San Antonio station KSAT, all 9,000 available slots were taken within six minutes of the online registration opening. Mississippi has already allocated all of its vaccine, and the next sign-up will not be until mid-February.

If you wait, by the time you're convinced you need a vaccine, you may not be able to get one.

Benefits outweigh risks

It is possible for some people that getting a COVID-19 vaccine could induce severe consequences, such as long-term respiratory problems or multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children, but the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and becoming severely ill is much greater than the risk of a severe side effect.

While approximately 1 in every 850 Americans has died from COVID-19, recent monitoring for adverse events from the vaccine showed that anaphylaxis occurred in only 11.1 cases per 1 million doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. vaccine development effort may be dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," but that doesn't mean shortcuts were taken during development, which accelerated because of years of knowledge about how to make a coronavirus vaccine based on research for SARS CoV-1, which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. Advances in technology, research and production, and massive funding that allowed for multiple clinical trials and data review, also helped immensely.

To date, nearly 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and the CDC estimates nearly another 100,000 could die within the next three weeks. As of yet, no deaths have been attributed to the vaccines. Over 10 million Americans have received their first dose.

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines do not contain live virus so you cannot get infected with COVID-19 from taking them. The vaccines work like the self-destructing messages in the "Mission Impossible" movies: They're made out of mRNA that provide instructions for your immune system to build up its own defenses. The mRNA degrades quickly after your immune system "reads" it and begins to work. It does not become a part of your DNA.

With any vaccine, mild side effects for up to 24 hours, like fatigue and fever, are possible, but this is your body responding to the vaccine like it should. The needle is small and most people don't feel the shot, but some may have a sore arm the next day like the day after lifting weights. Severe anaphylactic reactions are rare, mostly occurring in those with previous allergic reactions to injected medications. Safeguards are in place to prepare for this -- those getting vaccines are monitored for up to 30 minutes after receiving them, and vaccination centers have treatments, such as EpiPens, available on site.

Vaccinations also protect others

The sooner you get the vaccine, the sooner those around you are safer.

Mass vaccination efforts in the past, according to the CDC, have rid the world of smallpox and eradicated polio in the U.S. The vaccination series almost all of us get as babies allows us to lead healthier, longer lives.

In some locales, like Riverside County, California, an estimated 50% of health care workers have refused the vaccine, according to the Los Angeles Times. Some reasons include concern over effects of the vaccine in pregnant women and a belief that if they haven't caught COVID-19 by now they probably won't. But vulnerable people entrust their lives to health care workers, family caregivers and other front-line and essential workers, and if they don't get vaccinated, their risk unwillingly becomes the risk of everyone they encounter.

Herd immunity

We cannot return to normalcy until herd immunity is reached. Experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci estimate that this will require 70% to 90% of the population getting vaccinated. Until then, we'll all be restricted from gatherings and other activities.

Over 2 million people around the world didn't have the chance to get the life-saving vaccine. When it's your turn, make the most of that opportunity.

Adjoa Smalls-Mantey, M.D., D.Phil., is trained in immunology and is a psychiatrist in New York City. She's a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.