Among the many hurdles facing the timely and thorough distribution of a new vaccine, one lingering obstacle can be addressed simply with better communication: vaccine alarmism.
Public health leaders and medical experts have a duty of transparency, especially when it comes to a vaccine developed at record pace that they expect many people to get. And they have been transparent. Leagues of data have been made available from thousands of trial cases. Experts note that some vaccine recipients experience mild, short-lived side effects, particularly after a second dose of a two-part vaccine. They also stress that COVID-19 immunizations, like all others, are not 100 percent effective, and vaccination is not a get-out-of-risk-free card to flout continuing public health rules.
But if medical experts want as many people to get vaccinated as soon as possible — and they do — many are doing a poor job of properly contextualizing just how encouraging the data on vaccine efficacy is so far. Some vaccine alarmists seize on the differing effectiveness rates among the available vaccines — the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are about 95 percent effective after two doses; the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while only requiring one dose, is 66 percent. Some then ask: Why bother with the vaccine if it might not be effective?
Scientific communicators — whether it’s health experts or science journalists — can sometimes do a poor job of defining terms and concepts for public audiences, and when it comes to discussions on vaccines’ “effectiveness rate,” this is one of those times. It’s worth noting that the scientific definition of “effective” for vaccines likely differs from the layman’s. In a clinical setting, “effective” means prevention of all targeted illness. What that number does not tell us, though, is how effective vaccines are at not only preventing infection but mitigating more-severe illness, the latter of which curbs spread, hospitalizations and deaths even if some vaccinated do still contract a milder case.
But experimental data gives us a window into that. Even the vaccines with lower effectiveness rates performed exceptionally well in trials when it came to preventing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. Nearly 75,000 human trials were conducted between the top five vaccines — Moderna, Pfizer, Novavax, Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Out of those 75,000 subjects, zero died from COVID-19, zero were hospitalized 28 days after receiving a vaccine and zero died from the vaccine. This strongly suggests that the vaccines going into Americans’ arms right now are, in fact, very effective and very safe.
Fortunately, as the vaccine rollout continues, vaccine alarmism appears to be diminishing slowly but surely. According to a January poll from Kaiser Health News, about half of Americans wanted the vaccine as soon as possible — a number that should be higher, but is up significantly from a similar poll from just a month earlier. Vaccine skepticism is disproportionately high among certain demographics, including Black, Latino and lower-income communities — an obstacle that must be addressed if we are to ensure that our defense against the pandemic does not leave out vulnerable communities.
As eligibility broadens, more Bay Staters can now set up their appointments to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Massachusetts has administered 1,209,614 doses, with 27,875 of those shipped to the Berkshires. Our fair county’s vaccine clinics continue to impress with smooth and efficient administration; Berkshire County has the highest marks in the state for percentage of residents who received a first and second dose. All of this is good news, but the fight on the coronavirus is not yet won. It is imperative that everyone gets vaccinated as soon as they are eligible and able.
Not everyone is an epidemiologist or vaccination expert, but we need everyone together in this fight if we are to vanquish this viral enemy. That requires clearly communicating and properly unpacking the relevant information about vaccines. On balance, with the troves of publicly available data, the best weapon we have against this invisible enemy is getting vaccinated. It helps keep you and your family safe, it protects your most vulnerable neighbors and it’s an act of patriotism to help lift our nation out of this pandemic’s clutches.