What were the “experts” thinking? Two recent actions have discounted vaccination’s reward while increasing concerns about its risk. On top of the underlying elements undermining vaccination participation, their actions send the ominous message that our precautions will be perpetual.
Recently Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that, despite being fully vaccinated, he does not plan to go to an indoor restaurant or a movie or plan any trips “for a while.” Not long after, the CDC and FDA recommended pausing the administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine “out of an abundance of caution” because, out of around 6.9 million doses administered, six women had developed a rare form of blood clot.
Just like that, the reward-to-risk ratio of the COVID vaccination effort worsened. It was a one-two punch. One: Fauci’s admission diminished the return on getting vaccinated. For many people, eating out, going to a movie, and taking a trip are the reasons they wanted to get vaccinated. Two: the CDC–FDA “pause” gave further pause (not that more was needed) to those debating vaccination’s safety and did so over a literally “one in a million” occurrence.
People need to see some light ahead, not just more tunnel. A cure is important, but so is hope.
Even without these two actions, the COVID vaccination campaign faced some daunting numbers making many second-guess their first shot. Yes, as of April 20, the U.S. has had 32.5 million COVID-19 cases. That is a lot, but it is still less than 10 percent of the population. Of that less than 10 percent, 98 percent have recovered — and the recovery rate is far higher for those without underlying conditions. Together, those figures tell us that the virus is not nearly as contagious or as deadly as we feared when it erupted a year ago.
More recently, despite the notable upturn in cases in some states, the overall U.S. trend has been downward. This year’s seven-day moving average of daily new cases topped at 255,961 on January 11; on April 20, it was 67,151. Active cases topped at 9,155,575 on January 24; on April 20, it was 6,848,479. Daily deaths on a seven-day moving average peaked in 2021 at 3,473 on January 26; on April 20, it was 747. While these figures hardly argue that the pandemic is over, they do signal to many that the danger is less, and the less the danger, the less their motivation to get vaccinated.
Add to these falling numbers the herd immunity threshold. According to Fauci, herd immunity could be reached at between 70 and 85 percent of Americans being vaccinated or immune. Conversely, for those looking to avoid vaccination that means between 30 and 15 percent of the U.S. population does not need to be vaccinated — and that range is far more than the population percentage that has been infected in over a year.
All these figures feed into the non-quantifiable reasons driving people from vaccination. The vaccination is after all a shot — and, in most cases, two. Many Americans already do not get flu shots, a procedure far simpler and more familiar.
There is also the free-rider problem, something that bedevils any voluntary collective action. Via herd immunity, a substantial number of people can receive the vaccination campaign’s benefit without getting vaccinated — the very definition of the free-rider problem. The free-rider problem occurs under generic circumstances, where deterrents are not as big as vaccination’s multiplicity of them — side effects (the concern just raised further by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause), limited efficacy (nothing is 100 percent effective), and duration.
Of course, none of these factors resonate like the general fatigue well over a year into the COVID fight. It is in the shadow of this fatigue that the recent expert actions seem the most myopic. The fight is not just physiological but also psychological.
Americans must feel there is an end to the tunnel. To believe it, they need to see some light ahead, not just more tunnel. A cure is important, but so is hope.
There is real concern that what were intended to be prophylactic measures will become perpetual ones. All too many signals have already stoked those concerns. Oregon officials are considering requiring businesses to continue COVID rules indefinitely. And teachers unions have done nothing to dispel that worry either.
Americans are justifiably worried that officials will fall victim to demanding a riskless environment, in which nothing will ever be good enough — or rather that only nothing, as in zero cases, will be good enough. In that environment, as long as there is any chance for infection America will remain in a quasi-lockdown.
That America cannot become a riskless society is clear. That we cannot become a hopeless one is clearer still. Yet in spite of these things being clear to most, the experts’ two recent actions appear to have missed them.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.
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