This presents challenges for both the news media and news consumers alike. And twice in recent weeks, we’ve run into problems on that front.
First came a series of headlines on people quitting their jobs over vaccine mandates — headlines that often focused on raw numbers rather than the tiny percentages those numbers represented. Then came initial stories on the coronavirus-related death of a fully vaccinated Colin Powell, without mentioning that the former secretary of state was also a cancer patient. (Some vaccine skeptics went on to willfully ignore this crucial fact even long after it was pointed out.)
Given all of that, we thought it might be worth running through a few rules of thumb when it comes to following coronavirus and vaccine news. Consider this a humble guide to a better conversation about vaccines.
1. Demand more than “raising questions”
There are few easier traps for journalists to fall into than taking a new development and saying it “raises new questions” about XYZ. But that’s particularly the case when those answers are already out there.
Take the Powell situation. Much of the coverage in certain sectors quickly turned to the idea that his death, as a fully vaccinated person, suddenly raised new questions about the effectiveness of vaccines.
Except it didn’t. Not only was Powell an outlier as a cancer patient whose immune system was significantly compromised, he was hardly be the first vaccinated (and especially elderly) person to have died. Powell was a consequential American, but in the context of the impact of the virus and the vaccines, he was one of millions of data points.
We have literal hard data on how likely you are to die if you are vaccinated and in Powell’s category. Powell’s death changed almost literally nothing about what we know about the situation.
The most prominent vaccine skeptics in the country, like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, are extremely fond of asking all kinds of questions (often leading and misleading ones) about the vaccines — but then making no real effort to provide answers. And this despite the fact that those questions do often have readily available answers, or at least data that provides us some vital insight.
If that’s not being provided, the person making the argument isn’t making much of an effort to actually inform you. And it’s quite possible they are misinforming you.
2. Focus on the percentages and per-capita
This is something that could be applied to many things, but especially to a deadly pandemic. Essentially, when assessing the impact of something like the coronavirus or vaccination policies, it’s best to look for the frequency right alongside the raw numbers.
When the news hit that 593 United Airlines employees faced termination for declining to abide by the company’s vaccine mandate, that sounded like a lot. Except United is a very large company, and that number meant less than 1 percent were in violation.
Ditto that Massachusetts state trooper union’s release on “dozens” of its officers filing to resign over the state’s mandate — a number that, again, could have been as little as about 1 percent.
This also applies to comparisons of the coronavirus’s toll between places. When people last year noted the United States had the highest coronavirus death toll in the world, they often ignored the fact that some countries were worse off on a per-capita basis. Comparisons between states with differing approaches also suffer from this.
All of these denominators are vital to evaluating just how bad a situation is and how effective or harmful certain policies like vaccine mandates are. But they’re often downplayed — or even ignored altogether.
(Philip Bump had a must-read piece on all of this a few weeks back that I encourage people to read.)
3. Ignore the “not 100 percent effective” fallacy
So much of the effort to question the vaccines — most recently following news of Powell’s death — relies upon propping up and knocking down the straw man that they were supposed to be a bona fide silver bullet.
But remember that no vaccine is 100 percent effective, and the coronavirus vaccines were never sold by the experts as such. Even the earliest studies found that the vaccines had around 94 or 95 percent efficacy against infection. That protection against infection has since waned as the delta variant has caused more breakthrough infections, but the latest studies still show the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are 95 percent and 80 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations, respectively. They also show you’re 11 times more likely to die if you are unvaccinated.
Many people have an incorrect view that vaccines should, by definition, provide full immunity. But this is not realistic. The flu vaccines, for instance, generally have an efficacy of around 40 percent. Even the initial studies of the polio vaccines showed between a 60 percent and 70 percent efficacy against the most common strains.
For this, the polio vaccines were cheered. Today, in some corners, these types of numbers are scoffed at as if the vaccines are pointless.
If your news source is suggesting the vaccines don’t really work because they aren’t perfect or they have lost some efficacy over time, but that same news source doesn’t tell you how truly effective they remain at preventing the worst outcomes, you might want to adjust your news consumption habits.
Regrettably, this has led to a scenario in which the median unvaccinated Republican believes the vaccines have basically zero efficacy in preventing hospitalization — which is miles away from the truth.
4. Look at public officials’ whole record — and on the big stuff
To the above point, there have been times when some who lead us have gotten out over their skis or said the wrong things. President Biden in a July town hall, for instance, wrongly suggested the vaccines were more of a silver bullet than they actually are (a comment that those pushing the 100-percent-efficacy straw man can now cite). The other big example often cited is when top federal infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci early in the pandemic advised against masks.
Biden has a habit of doing this kind of thing, and it’s unhelpful to the broader effort. Just as you don’t want to scare people too much, there is also a danger in providing a false sense of security.
As for Fauci, even he has acknowledged his early advice, while based upon what health officials understood at the time, was at least in part given due to fears that people would snap up masks and there wouldn’t be enough for medical professionals.
Comments and advice like this should always factor into views about who can be relied upon. Credibility is vital at a time like this, and public officials should guard that as carefully as possible. But it’s also possible to take one gaffe or one recommendation based upon incomplete information and blow it out of proportion. The fact that the vaccines weren’t actually 100 percent effective, for instance, was no secret when Biden said what he did.
This is difficult, because nobody has encyclopedic knowledge of everything a public servant says. But when it comes to being wrong, focus on what we knew at the time, the patterns/number of false claims, and how much impact wrong information might have logically had on major policies or people’s life-or-death decisions.