The science is squarely on our side. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data on breakthrough coronavirus infections — meaning instances of fully vaccinated people testing positive. The data highlighted how effective vaccination is, but you might not have drawn that conclusion from news reports.
By themselves, the numbers sound concerning. But let’s take a closer look. An infection rate of 5,800 infections out of 77 million fully vaccinated people is less than 0.008 percent — a remarkably low rate. Compare this with 68,000 daily new infections in the United States — which, over a 30-day period, is nearly 100 times higher than the infection rate for those vaccinated. Put another way: A total of 5,800 infections among the inoculated is orders of magnitude better than 68,000 infections per day in the general population.
Furthermore, the CDC reported that nearly 30 percent of breakthrough infections were asymptomatic. Just 7 percent resulted in hospitalization, and 1 percent of those infected died. This is particularly stunning considering that the initial groups inoculated included the most medically frail; 80 percent of those over 65, who constituted 80 percent of earlier deaths, have now received one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Even including this group most at risk for adverse outcomes from covid-19, there were only 74 deaths total among the fully vaccinated, compared with an average of more than 700 deaths daily overall.
The media needs to put these numbers into better perspective. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, and the covid-19 vaccines rank high in terms of providing extraordinary protection against infection. Among the vaccinated, the rate of severe illness — the endpoint that really matters — is also extremely low.
A headline like this one in the British Medical Journal is a much better descriptor: “U.S. reports low rate of new infections in people already vaccinated.” Another helpful framing appeared in this article from the Hill: “Hospitalizations have occurred in 0.0005 percent of all full vaccinations and deaths in almost 0.0001 percent.”
In the same vein, a headline such as “Pfizer CEO says third Covid vaccine dose likely needed within 12 months” needs more context. Some might use the possibility of a booster to question the need for vaccination — why bother if protection doesn’t last that long? In fact, we know that immunity from vaccines will last at least six months. If immunity wanes after that, or if new variants develop, a booster could extend protection. The takeaway should be that it’s great for scientists to continually optimize these already very effective vaccines. People should get inoculated now; a booster shot, if needed in time, would add to that protection.
The most concerning narrative from this past week involves the discovery of rare blood clots that could be associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. I’ve argued that the initial pause on this vaccine was the right decision, though I worry that the length of the pause is allowing anti-vaccine activists to spread disinformation about vaccine safety.
Here’s how we need to reframe the pause. Federal health officials are being so cautious that they are willing to stop for a possible side effect that is literally so rare that it’s one in a million. That should make Americans feel more reassured about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which have been given to more than 100 million people without a red-flag safety concern arising. If anything, there’s legitimate criticism about whether the pause will harm individuals who otherwise could have been vaccinated during this time — but no one should doubt that vaccine safety is the top priority.
Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, predicts that the CDC will make a decision about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by the end of the week. Very likely, the pause will be lifted, perhaps with an added warning as the European Medicines Agency has done. When this announcement is made, it will be essential not only to talk about its safety, but also to emphasize why we need vaccines.
Put simply: More than 560,000 Americans have died from covid-19. Vaccines protect us against this deadly disease and are our pathway back to pre-pandemic life. Science has delivered a remarkable breakthrough, and all of us — from the medical establishment to the government to the media — should be putting the minimal risks into perspective while celebrating the vaccines’ overwhelming benefits.