Watching my teams lose is often more compelling than watching the Fox evening lineup, but I was nonetheless doubtful when a
New York Times
headline claimed “Fox News hosts smear America’s vaccination efforts.”
It turned out, on visiting the transcript, that
had merely reacted in their usual hyperbolic way to a
suggestion to send vaccinators door to door. Mr. Carlson, in particular, seemed like he might grasp the law of diminishing returns, because he started his remarks by praising U.S. success so far in getting 67% of adults vaccinated.
This is where the Times, like so many news outlets today, misses everything interesting about its subject in favor of executing a trope.
You might be curious about the actual numbers: Some 56% of Americans of all ages have volunteered to be inoculated, 14.5% under 12 aren’t eligible, and 10% have officially tested positive and presumably were advised by their doctors that infection confers immunity. Another 30% likely had Covid without being tested. Assume just one-third of these properly calculate that they don’t need vaccination. That still leaves only 10% of the population today as useful vaccine targets.
Some of these abstainers may be selfish young people, but lots will be young people who know all their older connections are vaccinated. Only a tiny share will likely be high-risk people who resist vaccination. In a few neighborhoods randomly knocking on doors might help, but I doubt this is the best way to reach this urgent but small cohort.
The Times’s real problem is its confused horror (which Fox anchors evidently don’t share) at the “vaccine hesitancy” of the nonurgent segment of the unvaccinated population—a horror that arises from its clinging to infinitely rising returns from vaccination, or the idea that when the last person is vaccinated, Covid will disappear from the earth.
This is what happens when you don’t pay attention to the world. The eliminationist fallacy still inhabits the media narrative even though it long since went by the boards as a behavioral or even a theoretical possibility.
Consider: Until December, the government didn’t approve the vaccine for kids as old as 17 because the risk might exceed the benefit against a disease so harmless in the young. Acknowledging even slight vaccine risks contributes to “vaccine hesitancy” and yet I think we agree the government shouldn’t hide risks.
Young people, after 17 months, already understand they have been asked to shoulder many risks and costs to protect others. With each day, as more Americans are vaccinated, an unvaccinated person’s likelihood of encountering the disease goes down, as does his incentive to accept the risk of vaccination.
This can’t help but increase “vaccine hesitancy,” and engaging in propagandistic lies about it would likely only make matters worse.
You can see the problem most starkly in those “zero Covid” countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, which could seal their borders and mostly keep the virus out. Now these countries are full of people who rightly calculate that, as of today, the vaccine is riskier to them than the nonexistent disease in their midst. Their governments are reduced to the mumbled argument: Get vaccinated so we can let Covid in—i.e., resume relations with the outside world. (Ironically, these are becoming the real “let it rip” countries.)
So a fascinating question is about to be answered: Under various systems and cultures, where will the upward limit of vaccine compliance be found? I’m guessing, behaviorally, the limit will be around 80% or less. And thanks to more-transmissible variants plus the fact that our vaccines are better at preventing serious disease than at stopping people from catching and spreading the virus, even the theoretical possibility of eliminating the virus from a given population with perfect compliance is likely obsolete.
This understanding is everywhere except in the rhetoric of our slowest learners, including
the untrained activist who now heads the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. And it shows. In fact, we should still be focusing today where we should have focused on day one, on those at high risk of serious complications or death from a disease that, no, isn’t on a path to elimination. These people have seen the TV commercials. They have been bombarded with advice from their doctors, loved ones and Medicaid counselors. By now, they are a minority of the unvaccinated minority. Someone should knock on their doors but not after knocking on 99 other doors first.
Alas, stupidity seems to have taken charge in the public square in a way I don’t remember seeing previously. It makes everything harder—from helping the public understand the usefulness and nonusefulness of masks to avoiding today’s confused, who-struck-John fights about vaccine hesitancy. A free press has not been the blessing it should have been.
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