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Feature 03.24.2022 5 minutes

ForeverMask and NeverVax

vial of coronavirus vaccine with syringe and mask

You're both wrong.

What’s the easiest way today to make nearly everyone angry with you—at least everyone who spends significant time hanging out online and arguing about politics?

Just point out the demonstrable wrongheadedness of both extremes on COVID. Although there is significant evidence that a large portion of Americans are in the reasonable ground between these two, you can be assured that if you take a middle-ground stance online, furious members of both poles will accuse you of a litany of offenses against morality and common sense.

The two extremes are, on one side, the ForeverMaskers—“let’s wear masks forever and social distance unto death because the risk is too great”—and, on the other, the NeverVaxers—“COVID-19 is just a cold and the vaccines will kill you more surely than the virus.”

Each likes to accuse the other of irrationality and fear-mongering. Both are right. The people who think we will and should never get beyond this pandemic unreasonably exaggerate the real risks and danger of the virus. The people who reflexively contradict a broad scientific consensus on the basis of a handful of outliers unreasonably exaggerate the risk and danger of the vaccines. Each of them tells us constantly that if we are all doomed if we don’t _______ (insert “lock down in perpetuity” or “refuse vaccination en masse” here, to taste).

The basic data on COVID-19 are not at all complicated to understand. The virus, in all its various forms, causes mild disease in most of those it infects, and many have no symptoms at all. It is not the Black Death. But it has been much more deadly than influenza in even the worst years of the latter. More than 900,000 Americans are dead of it after two years, and a particularly bad flu season kills less than 1/20 of that total. COVID-19 has killed 300,000 more of us than the Spanish flu did in 1918.

So far as current data shows, COVID-19 vaccines are about as safe as any vaccines we have ever developed. More than 215 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and more than 550 million total doses have been administered. No vaccines ever invented have caused no adverse reactions. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that every case of death reported in VAERS (the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) was caused by a vaccine—even though there is no possible way that is even close to true, because no effort has been made to rigorously establish the cause of death of any of those reported in VAERS.

There are about 13,000 such cases reported there. Twelve thousand deaths out of 558 million doses administered means your chance of dying—again, according to VAERS numbers that are certainly far higher than the real number—is approximately 1 in 42,923. By contrast, we have had nearly 80 million documented COVID infections in the U.S., and about 972,000 deaths. That’s a 1 in 82 chance of dying from the virus if infected.

Of course, we know that COVID risk varies among different groups. But in general, even using the VAERS numbers, the virus is still more than 500 times likelier than the vaccine to kill you. That differential can’t be qualified into insignificance. The vaccines do not even close to perfectly protect against infection, especially with Omicron. But they provide quite significant protection against serious illness, hospitalization, and death. Natural immunity also provides protection, but it requires infection to provide that protection, which means risk of serious illness and death—exactly the things against which the vaccines protect.

The past two years have been a nightmare. Much of that reality was produced by the crude fact of the virus itself and its formidable ability to make us sick and kill us. But the nightmare was made worse and prolonged by the national interplay of obsessives among the rival factions.

The ForeverMaskers pretended that total and extended lockdowns, not just at the start of the pandemic but all the way up to the Omicron wave, were the only possible position supported by “the science,” when the benefits of such a policy must always be evaluated against the massive negative health and economic consequences it can—and did—produce.

The NeverVaxers let the understandable limits of their trust in public health authorities drag them into counterproductive contrarianism, papering over the variable risks of different groups to push a single approach with obvious flaws that certainly led to additional hospitalizations and deaths. As the fresh explosion of the virus in Hong Kong should warn us, that approach gives the virus more time to undergo more mutations, some of which are likely not only to sneak around the vaccines but around antibodies from infection too.

There are many lessons to be learned from these dismal two years. Perhaps the most important is how easy it is to go desperately wrong when you are too certain of your own knowledge and too suspicious of anyone who disagrees. It’s hard to ensure that different groups of people can exercise the political judgment needed to adopt informed approaches that work best for them. But if we do not learn how to do a better job of it, we will all do worse when we face the next major public health crisis.

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