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Opinion The Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause is Biden’s first test in covid-19 truth-telling

Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, leads a news briefing on covid-19. (AP)
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Within hours of the Tuesday morning announcement from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that use of the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine should be paused, the White House swung into action.

Fully aware that reporters would hype the announcement and a blizzard of wrongheaded takes would blanket social media, Jeff Zients, the White House’s covid-19 response coordinator, put out a statement explaining that the pause was taken after six cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot appeared in patients who got the vaccine. He explained that the “Johnson & Johnson vaccine makes up less than 5 percent of the recorded shots in arms in the United States to date,” so there would be little impact on the president’s goal of 200 million shots in his first 100 days, thanks to the 600 million doses available from other drug manufacturers that did not have this issue.

Additional clarification soon followed. Officials from the FDA and CDC explained in a call that they recommended the pause to alert the public and to allow the physician community to learn more about these cases of blood clots, suggesting the pause might be short-lived. The White House then added Zients and Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, to the briefing.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The contrast with the preceding administration could not be more stark. Whereas the last administration pressured health officials at both the FDA and CDC, this administration let the health experts proceed as they saw fit. Get the information out quickly. Put it in context. Speak through experts, not politicians.

President Biden promised that he would always be “straight” with the American people whether the news was good or bad. So far, he has made good on that promise. The president made a calculation early on that in giving health experts free rein and being candid about mistakes and issues, the administration would engender trust. This was a pivot from a presidency in which “alternative facts” and “nothing matters” dominated to one in which candor and facts most certainly matter.

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The greatest complication with this approach is the media, which too often seeks to amplify every issue into a full-blown crisis. They run the risk of sharing anecdotal information about people now scared to take the vaccine (were they eager to take it before?) and failing to convey the contrast between the tiny number of blood clot cases (not yet even shown to be caused by the vaccine) and the overwhelming effectiveness of the vaccines that prevent grave illness and death.

Biden is sticking to his communications strategy, but his success depends in large part on the self-restraint and precision of media coverage. Ironically, it is arguably the media (both traditional and social) that poses the greatest risk to the president and to the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign. Let’s pray that for once, reporters and commentators lacking expertise think before they write or speak.

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