Consider this tweet from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
It is four sentences long, and each of the first three sentences is obviously wrong and/or misleading.
For example, it is not the case that 33.6 million Americans survived covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, even based on the screenshot from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Greene shared. It says right there that more than 600,000 of those infections were not survived.
Nor is it the case that vaccines played no role in protecting the millions of people who lived. Some of those survivors were vaccinated; one of the points of the coronavirus vaccines is that in the case of infection, which can happen, the resulting disease is significantly less symptomatic and dangerous.
It is also not the case that the federal government is forcing anyone to get vaccinated. The government understandably sees a role for itself in keeping Americans alive, and since the vaccine is an effective way to prevent one particular type of death — of covid-19 — it’s trying to persuade people to get the vaccine, including bringing it to people’s homes.
But it is also competing with claims like Greene’s, casting the vaccine as unnecessary. That’s the advantage that Greene and her ilk have in this debate: Indifferent to the real evidence, they inject evidence-like claims into the conversation, fostering doubt and requiring those who want the public to be accurately informed to dismantle another bit of nonsense.
So let’s dismantle this one.
Greene’s argument takes a form we’ve seen often in the past 16 months. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s been an attempt to argue that the coronavirus isn’t that deadly, so people don’t really need to worry about it. Last spring, President Donald Trump would occasionally compare the virus to the flu or to car accidents as a way of shrugging about the need to treat the pandemic as exceptional. Now, with the vaccine effectively tamping down new infections in much of the country, that sort of indifference has gained more traction.
But this was not then, and is not now, the flu. In the 2018-2019 flu season, the CDC estimates that about 99.9 percent of those who contracted the virus survived it — meaning that 0.1 percent succumbed to the flu. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the rate of mortality has been much higher: 1.99 percent. That’s of confirmed infections, of course, while the flu data includes estimated rates of infection. So that 2 percent figure will drop. But it is, nonetheless, the data that Greene is using for her claim.
Those who want to diminish the danger of the virus will now transition to two lines of argument. The first is that while 2 percent of those confirmed to have been infected have died over the course of the pandemic — a total that includes deaths in the early months when the virus was not as well understood — even in the last four weeks the ratio of new infections to deaths is about the same. Over that period, 1.79 percent of confirmed infections has resulted in a death. That ratio has been fairly flat since the vaccines began being broadly rolled out.
(The dip in the spring of 2020 is a function of the lack of widespread testing. There were thousands of infections that weren’t detected, so the number of deaths then is being compared here with an even smaller group of confirmed infections. Again, this is why the 2 percent figure will probably drop as the CDC estimates total coronavirus infections.)
The other argument is that those deaths are heavily concentrated among older Americans. Protect them, and the death toll drops.
It’s true that coronavirus deaths have been mostly among the elderly and often among those with underlying health conditions. A review of anonymized CDC data, though, shows that about 11 percent of covid-19 deaths from March to May occurred among people under the age of 55, including about 1 in 100 deaths that occurred in people younger than 50. Only a handful of those were among people with preexisting conditions.
It’s a reminder that while most of those who’ve died of the virus have been old, being old is not a prerequisite for dying of the virus.
But even among older Americans, many are refusing to be protected with the vaccine. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that more than a quarter of Americans say they definitely or probably won’t get the vaccine — including 17 percent of Americans over age 65.
That’s about 7 million Americans who are both above the age of 65 and who say they won’t get vaccinated.
This attitude is more understandable among younger Americans for whom the risk of death is in fact lower. Though even that is a bit bizarre. We accept certain risks when driving, for example, balancing the dangers of sitting in and around rapidly moving metal boxes against the utility of getting places more quickly. Tens of thousands of people die in car accidents each year, but the odds are remote enough that we don’t generally worry about it, especially if we’re safe drivers.
Now imagine that someone invented a device that would all but eliminate the risk of dying in a car accident — and even significantly reduce the damage to you or your car if you did get into an accident. It’s free and simple to install, with the government offering to mail one to your house. Some people may find that their cars drive slowly for a day or two, yes, and very, very rarely, it may disrupt your car’s functioning and require a trip to the mechanic. Would you refuse to install that device?
What if the number of car-accident deaths was 10 times higher than it actually is, with the number of vehicular deaths matching the death toll from covid-19 in 2020? You’d still toss that free device in the garbage?
What if your installing the device meant that fewer other people would also die in crashes, people who might be at higher risk? That’s the other part of this, of course: Those 7 million elderly Americans who refuse to get the vaccine would be safer if everyone else did, since the virus would be less able to spread. An essential part of Greene’s pitch is that death from the virus is rare — which is much more the case now, thanks to case totals being so low from widespread vaccination.
But the number of new cases is trending back up in places, because the more-contagious delta variant of the virus is colliding with less-vaccinated populations.
There are more than 15,000 new confirmed cases each day at this point on average, meaning that we can eventually expect about 300 more covid-19 deaths each day as a result. (The current rate is a bit more than 200 deaths per day.) News reports continue to convey one common factor in those deaths: They occurred among the unvaccinated.
It is true that you are unlikely to die of the coronavirus, even if you aren’t vaccinated. It is also true that being ill with covid-19 can have long-term effects that can be avoided or reduced if you get a vaccine. And it is true that, while you might not die of the virus, you might spread it to someone who could. Or that you could spread it to someone in whom the virus mutates into a more dangerous form.
Again, one of Greene’s central goals here is to introduce skepticism to bolster her anti-establishment credentials. The reality is fairly simple: Vaccinations curtail infections and deaths, reducing the risk for everyone in the country, including yourself.
But notice how long it took me to make that point. That’s the problem.