The Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines have been an outstanding success by any measure and represent the quickest path to a return to normal American life, but experts are worried that mixed government messaging and skeptical journalism are clouding the good news.
Instead of hearing vaccines are a direct ticket to normalcy, hedging statements from Biden administration figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci and White House press secretary Jen Psaki have cast doubt on when that will occur, even after people get vaccinated. Instead of pushing studies that vaccinated persons are far less likely to infect others because of a reduced viral load, Americans are being told to continue hunkering down.
And media reports haven’t always helped, including one headline from NBC News suggesting coronavirus was still spreading among vaccinated individuals, even though the few cases in Oregon were mild to asymptomatic. Other local news headlines have highlighted isolated instances of people dying post-vaccination, without a link to the vaccine having been confirmed.
No concerning safety issues were associated with either the Pfizer and BioNTech or Moderna coronavirus vaccines during the first month of rollouts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week. No deaths were attributed to the vaccines either, the health agency noted.
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“If you’re not giving people hope and you’re not giving them the idea that this is going to end soon, the mental health of the nation is going to continue to decline,” Fox News medical contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier said in an interview.
It’s not false hope, either, despite the grim milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths this week and a year of business shutdowns, school closings, and isolation. Due partly to the vaccine — but also to potentially high natural immunity from those who already got the virus and don’t know it — the U.S. is seeing declining rates of cases and deaths. It leads the world in total vaccinations doled out.
Israel has administered at least one dose of Pfizer to nearly half of its population, and vaccinated Israelis were 95.8 percent less likely to get coronavirus and 98.9 percent less likely to be hospitalized or die than those without vaccinations. A sharp decline in hospitalization and serious illness was also reported for the first time in people aged 55 and older, according to Reuters.
But the difference is Israel is framing the vaccine as a reward that leads to getting back to normal activities, or a “carrot,” as Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel put it. The U.S. largely isn’t.
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“Israel has done a superb job of messaging on this. Israel is really giving you the big numbers, and they’re coming across very well,” Siegel said, adding, “The question is over. It’s answered. This is as good as we thought it was. The data out of Israel is irrefutable. This vaccine is safe and it works.”
For Saphier, the message is simple.
“Anyone who wants the vaccination should go out and get the vaccine because it is safe and incredibly efficacious. From a messaging standpoint, it is crucial to tell the American people why they should be vaccinated,” she said.
Israel, of course, has a small fraction of the population of the United States and is roughly the physical size of New Jersey. Still, it aggressively re-opened in the wake of its successful vaccine launch, giving access to leisure places like gyms and swimming pools to those who prove with their “vaccine passports” that they’ve been jabbed.
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“I think we could use it as a carrot rather than a stick. There’s too many sticks,” said Siegel, who got his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in January,
In a perfect example of COVID policy not matching the deserved faith in vaccines, Siegel was required to get a negative coronavirus test before attending a New York Knicks game Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. However, his chance of having the virus after being vaccinated was far less than a non-vaccinated, asymptomatic COVID carrier getting a false negative result.
And yet there continue to be mixed messages from the Biden administration, in spite of the president’s repeated insistence that science, and science only, would guide his response. It’s gotten the attention of the New York Times, which noted polls showing significant percentages of various groups, from Republicans to minorities to health care workers, are skeptical about the vaccine.
Virologists and epidemiologists told the Times it’s because of messaging that emphasizes uncertainty and potential bad news. While not necessarily false, it’s misleading.
“They’re right to be cautious about the optimistic trends, but they’re overly cautious, and they’re right to be semi-alarmist on the variants, but they’re over-alarmist on the variants,” Siegel said.
Dr. Rebecca Wurtz of the University of Minnesota told the Times that ambiguous messaging contributes to “ambivalent feelings about vaccination.”
“Over and over again, I see statements that in theory one could be infected and spread the virus even after being fully vaccinated,” she said.
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Frustration among conservatives, even Trump-skeptical ones, is particularly mounting with Fauci, who is well-regarded by his medical peers but has come under scrutiny for his hyper-caution. He is fully vaccinated, but he still recently said he won’t dine out or travel to see his family, and he’s discouraged others who are vaccinated from doing so. He’s said he hopes for a “degree of normality” by the end of the year.
HotAir’s AllahPundit called Fauci’s approach “madness” and said the onus should be on the unvaccinated to avoid public places. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat wrote President Biden and Fauci are far too “pessimistic” given the trendlines.
“The danger of the overcautious, wait-for-Christmas public rhetoric from Biden and Fauci is that it provides cover and encouragement for fearful officials to extend the whole suite of emergency measures for many unnecessary months,” Douthat wrote.
Commentary’s Noah Rothman has also been sharply critical of the dour tone from the face of the coronavirus response.
But Fauci’s message mirrors the White House, as well as some of its media proponents.
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Biden said last week he hoped the country could be back to normal by Christmas, which would be nearly two years after the outbreak first hit the United States. Psaki has also pushed the message from the White House podium that vaccinations aren’t an automatic ticket to pre-COVID life.
“Obviously, [the vaccine] is an incredible medical breakthrough and we want every American to have one. But even after you’re vaccinated, social distancing and wearing masks are going to be essential, and we’ll need to continue communicating about that,” she said earlier this month.
In December, MSNBC medical analyst Dr. Vin Gupta admonished viewers to not feel “liberated from masks” once they got their two doses and still not to travel until summer.
Messaging behind the vaccine should not be about getting to “zero risk,” Saphier told Fox News, adding common sense dictates that vaccinated people have lower viral loads and are thus less likely to transmit the disease. Data from Israel has demonstrated the vaccine is highly effective against the asymptomatic spread of the virus.
“We will never get to zero risk,” Saphier said. “Seat belts reduce the risk in motor vehicle accidents by 45 percent, but still over a million people die in motor vehicle crashes because we still go out, we still are driving cars … The further along we go and getting more immunity, the stronger our messaging needs to be that it’s time to start resuming normal life. People are not going to go get the vaccine if nothing’s going to change.”
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Before winning the election, Biden and running mate Kamala Harris questioned the viability of a potential vaccine under the Trump administration. Media outlets declared Trump would need a “miracle” to have one ready by the end of 2020, but there wound up being two following Operation Warp Speed. Trump also publicly clashed with Fauci and other medical experts on coronavirus messages, and the reliability of the government’s potentially life-saving information became questionable.
It’s all a reminder that politics doesn’t mix well with public health.
“A huge reason that people who are choosing not to get it is because they feel the process was rushed, and why do people feel the process was rushed? The politicization of it in 2020,” Saphier said.
She added that Fauci has a “hard time commenting on things” unless there’s a strong clinical trial behind it, calling him “very smart” and thus hopefully able to relay common sense.
“I think he plays it safe, and unfortunately while that may be professionaly responsible, I don’t think that’s what the American people need right now,” she said. “I’d rather be honest with my opinion and be wrong then to leave the American people in the dark.”
A new poll shows some encouraging signs, with 60 percent of registered voters saying they either will or already got vaccinated, up from 45 percent in the same survey in November. However, there was a gap between Democrats (78 percent) and Republicans (47 percent) demonstrating politics has poisoned vaccine credibility in the minds of many voters.
Dr. Paul Offit of the University of Pennsylvania told Fox News, however, that the Biden administration is properly promoting the vaccine and the messaging around continuing to mask was proper, since most of the population is still unvaccinated. He cited a Norway study from the early 2000s that found unvaccinated people in a highly vaccinated community were actually less likely to develop measles than a single vaccinated person in a largely unvaccinated community.
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“You’re still seeing thousands of deaths per day. This is still a pandemic,” he said. “There are two ways to argue to continue to wear a mask. I don’t think you can make a good argument for altruism in the United States. People are too selfish. I think that’s not going to be a message that sells.”