As of March of this year, more than 2½ million people have been lost to COVID-19, with more than half a million in the U.S. alone. Lives have been upended, masks have become part of our daily lives, and many of the long-term implications and effects of COVID-19 are still unknown.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Multiple vaccines have been developed and are being distributed, reducing virus transmission rates among key groups of people. But as recent surveys have shown, skepticism remains about the vaccines. According to the Pew Research Center, 30% of U.S. adults said they do not currently plan to get vaccinated.
The Pew Charitable Trusts spoke with Rebecca Wurtz, a physician and associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, about recently approved vaccines and vaccine hesitancy. Her responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s talk about these COVID-19 vaccines. There are different effectiveness rates. What do those rates actually mean? Does it mean I should want one vaccine instead of the other?
All four of the vaccines have been shown to be extremely effective in clinical trials. And as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being rolled out, they’re proving that their efficacy out in the real world is the same as they were in clinical trials. The difference of a few percentage points, even 10 percentage points in efficacy, is really irrelevant in our efforts to stop the outbreak and to protect individual people. They seem to all have extremely high rates of protecting against serious disease, which is really what we want.
When people hear the rate isn’t 100%, they sometimes will say, “Well, then, why bother? I still have a chance of getting COVID.” What should we say to the folks who are thinking that way?
None of our vaccines, the ones that we all got as kids, is 100% effective. They are all on the range of the efficacy of the vaccines that we’re hearing about for COVID-19. And yet we don’t have measles, we don’t have polio in the United States. The reason to participate is that you yourself are very, very likely to be protected. But if you’re not protected, if your neighbor is protected at a 95% rate, your chance goes down from 100% right there. So even if there’s a small gap in your individual protection, if everyone around you is protected, then that makes you safer as well.
The other thing some people will hear is, “Well, I’m going to get the vaccine, but we still have to wear masks. And the world is not going to really change for a long time.” Why is that?
There have been questions raised about whether or not someone could be infected, despite being vaccinated, and shed virus. Those concerns are theoretical; there’s no data to support either shedding virus or not shedding virus following the vaccine. So, I think people are erring, at least at this moment, on the better side of caution of saying that we don’t know yet. That data is being gathered; we will probably know within a couple of months.
I think there are also social norms that we should adhere to: We should wear masks out in public to prove that we agree that wearing masks is important. So, over time, we’ll know better whether we need to wear masks after we’ve been effectively vaccinated.
It seems that an important part of advancing vaccine acceptance is better communicating to the public.
So much of medical and science communication is around a new medication for heart disease or for cancer. When a medical communicator, a science reporter, communicates that to an individual and the individual makes a choice with his or her health provider, they’re making a choice for themselves and perhaps for their family. But communicating about public health, about communicable diseases in particular, influences people to make choices that impact not only themselves but their family, their neighbors, their workplaces, their communities. So, it’s a different challenge in terms of communicating about communicable diseases.
We get a flu shot every year; other vaccinations we get once, twice, in our lifetimes. Do we know what’s going to happen with the COVID-19 vaccine—is this going to be something that is one and done? Or are we going to be getting a shot every year, like we do our flu shot?
We simply don’t know. It’s hard to remember that we’ve only been facing this pathogen in the United States for about a year, much shorter than the average cycle in which we deal with flu. So, it remains to be seen how long the immunity induced by the current vaccines persists and whether coronavirus can change in ways that mean that we need to re-up or modify the immunity each year.
A lot of media reports and discussions with scientists and researchers include talk of risk and uncertainties, and possible problems. Are those important for us to know, or are they cluttering up our basic understanding of what has happened?
There are lots of reasons why people are concerned about a vaccine, but it’s usually not about efficacy, even though that’s the number that we’re putting out there. Right now, it’s more about safety. And I think the perception—what people are weighing is the relative risk of the vaccine versus the disease it’s going to prevent.
And the risks are negligible. In studies and now in actual rollout in tens of millions of people around the world, the risks have been essentially zero.
That’s important—let’s stay with that for a moment. Because you rightly say that, if people are concerned about the vaccine, they are trying to weigh the risk of this shot in their arm versus getting the virus. Can you describe that scale?
If the vaccine were as dangerous as COVID, given the number of people who’ve gotten the vaccine by now, 40,000 people would have died from the vaccine. No one has died from the vaccine. [Note: this interview was conducted prior to a temporary pause in use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine after at least one woman died from blood clots after being vaccinated.] And we know already that it’s prevented tens of thousands of deaths around the world, let alone hundreds of thousands of cases. So, I think if we’re weighing the risk of disease versus the risk of the vaccine, the conclusion is clear.
So, what should members of the public as they talk to a health care provider, read stories in the media, be paying attention to?
I think speaking with their individual provider about that person’s recommendations is going to be more important than reading the competing and eye-grabbing columns in social media and in newspapers. What’s in the media, it’s based on press releases. We’ve been trying to manage this pandemic and this vaccine rollout using press releases on data on the vaccine trials. And it’s been misleading and, frankly, alarming. And I think to speak with a trusted health care provider about whether the vaccine is right for them will be the most persuasive and compelling.
Listen to the full interview with Rebecca Wurtz on Pew’s podcast, “After the Fact.”