Vaccine Alarmism

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ImageA vaccination site in Connecticut.
Credit…Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, you’re probably familiar with the idea of vaccine alarmism. It goes something like this:

The coronavirus vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective. Vaccinated people may still be contagious. And the virus variants may make everything worse. So don’t change your behavior even if you get a shot.

Much of this message has some basis in truth, but it is fundamentally misleading. The evidence so far suggests that a full dose of the vaccine — with the appropriate waiting period after the second shot — effectively eliminates the risk of Covid-19 death, nearly eliminates the risk of hospitalization and drastically reduces a person’s ability to infect somebody else. All of that is also true about the virus’s new variants.

Yet the alarmism continues. And now we are seeing its real-world costs: Many people don’t want to get the vaccine partly because it sounds so ineffectual.

About one-third of members of the U.S. military have declined vaccine shots. When shots first became available to Ohio nursing-home workers, about 60 percent said no. Some N.B.A. stars are wary of appearing in public-services ads encouraging vaccination.

Nationwide, nearly half of Americans would refuse a shot if offered one immediately, polls suggest. Vaccination skepticism is even higher among Black and Hispanic people, white people without a college degree, registered Republicans and lower-income households.

Kate Grabowski, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, told me that she has heard from relatives about their friends and co-workers choosing not to get a shot because they keep hearing they can still get Covid and pass it on to others — and will still need to wear masks and social distance. “What’s the point?” she said, describing their attitude.

The message from experts, Grabowski said, is “being misinterpreted. That’s on us. We’re clearly doing something wrong.”

“Our discussion about vaccines has been poor, really poor,” Dr. Muge Cevik, a virologist, told me. “As scientists we need to be more careful what we say and how that could be understood by the public.”


Credit…Janie Osborne for The New York Times

Many academic experts — and, yes, journalists too — are instinctively skeptical and cautious. This instinct has caused the public messaging about vaccines to emphasize uncertainty and potential future bad news.

To take one example: The initial research trials of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines did not study whether a vaccinated person could get infected and infect another person. But the accumulated scientific evidence suggests the chances are very small that a vaccinated person could infect someone else with a severe case of Covid. (A mild case is effectively the common cold.) You wouldn’t know that from much of the public discussion.

“Over and over again, I see statements that in theory one could be infected and spread the virus even after being fully vaccinated,” Dr. Rebecca Wurtz of the University of Minnesota told me. “Is the ambiguous messaging contributing to ambivalent feelings about vaccination? Yes, no question.”

The messaging, as Dr. Abraar Karan of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said, has a “somewhat paternalistic” quality. It’s as if many experts do not trust people to understand both that the vaccines make an enormous difference and that there are unanswered questions.

As a result, the public messages err on the side of alarmism: The vaccine is not a get-out-of-Covid-free card!

In their own lives, medical experts — and, again, journalists — tend to be cleareyed about the vaccines. Many are getting shots as soon as they’re offered one. They are urging their family and friends to do the same. But when they speak to a national audience, they deliver a message that comes off very differently. It is dominated by talk of risks, uncertainties, caveats and possible problems. It feeds pre-existing anti-vaccine misinformation and anxiety.

No wonder that the experts’ own communities (which are disproportionately white, upper-income and liberal) are less skeptical of the vaccines than Black, Latino, working class and conservative communities.

Over the next several weeks, the supply of available vaccines will surge. If large numbers of Americans say no to a shot, however, many will suffer needlessly. “It makes me sad,” Grabowski told me. “We’ve created this amazing technology, and we can save so many lives.”

What should the public messaging about the vaccines be? “They’re safe. They’re highly effective against serious disease. And the emerging evidence about infectiousness looks really good,” Grabowski said. “If you have access to a vaccine and you’re eligible, you should get it.”

Virus developments:

  • The number of confirmed Covid deaths in the U.S. is on pace to exceed 500,000 in the next few days.

  • Officials in some states have expanded the supply of available vaccine doses by redistributing unused shots from nursing homes and hospitals.

  • The U.S. will help finance a global push to distribute vaccines to low- and middle-income countries.


Credit…Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times
  • Most people in the state have power again, but millions of Texans are without drinkable water as pipes cracked, wells froze and the storm knocked water treatment plants offline.

  • The power failure and lack of water have caused havoc in some Texas hospitals: frigid temperatures, a dearth of generators and a spike in emergency room visits.

  • Here’s how you can help affected communities.

  • Senator Ted Cruz and his wife hastily planned a family trip to a luxury resort in Cancún, Mexico, while the storm battered Texas. After intense criticism, Cruz flew back home.


Credit…Bill Ingalls/NASA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • Perseverance, NASA’s advanced new rover, touched down on Mars. Here’s what you need to know about its mission and the experimental “Marscopter” on board.

  • The Biden administration offered to restart nuclear talks with Iran, a potential step toward restoring the 2015 accord that Donald Trump abandoned. It’s unclear if Tehran will accept.

  • A British court ruled that Uber drivers are entitled to minimum wage and vacation days.

  • Facebook has blocked all news in Australia. The country is preparing to make tech companies pay for the news on their platforms.

  • An experimental program enrolled students from high-poverty high schools in a Harvard poetry course, and the students excelled. The results suggest that elite colleges could do substantially more to increase diversity.

  • Alex Trebek’s family donated his “Jeopardy!” wardrobe to a nonprofit group that provides clothes to formerly homeless and incarcerated men.

A Morning Read: With their daughters off to college, an Iranian-American couple decided to return to the homeland they had left as children. The decision upended their lives.

Modern Love: For this man, a thin line between enabling and love.

From Opinion: What’s the cost of racism, for everyone?

Lives Lived: Prince Markie Dee, who as a member of the trio Fat Boys released some of hip-hop’s most commercially successful albums of the 1980s and helped speed the genre’s absorption into pop culture, died at 52.

Nicknamed the “Master Caster,” Lynn Stalmaster was an Oscar-winning casting director who helped make the careers of many famous actors. He died at 93.


Credit…Flo Ngala

Booming music, glittering costumes, a feeling of freedom: From Brooklyn to London and other places, Carnival has become a full-tilt joyfest of renewal, resistance and remembering for Caribbean immigrants.

As the singer Justine Skye, who usually participates in the West Indian American Day Parade in Brooklyn, put it: “Honestly, that’s the one time of the year I feel like anybody, doesn’t matter what shape, size, color you are, you just come together and you just let it all loose, and you just feel so confident within yourself.”

Because the festivities are canceled this year, The Times put together a project commemorating the event and detailing its history. We recommend going through these dazzling photos of the blinged-out swimsuits and colorful plumage from Caribbean Carnivals around the world.


Credit…Johnny Miller for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Susan Spungen.

This baked spinach-artichoke pasta takes 10 minutes of active cooking before you put it in the oven. Here’s what members of The Times’s Food team make when they’re too tired to cook.

The Netflix film “I Care a Lot” weaves between horror and comedy, and Rosamund Pike plays a villainous legal guardian who preys on retirees. Read The Times’s review.

The hosts had a lot to say about Cruz’s trip to Mexico.

How many vaccine shots has the European Union administered per 100 residents? Take this week’s News Quiz, and compete with other Times readers.


The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was adapting. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Misleading ploy (four letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you Monday. — David

P.S. On NPR’s “Fresh Air,” The Times’s Claire Cain Miller discussed the strain the pandemic has placed on mothers.

You can see today’s print front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” asks when kids will receive coronavirus vaccines. On “The Ezra Klein Show,” the novelist George Saunders discusses meditation.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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