In the past few days I have come across two news headlines that only serve to fan the flames of fear, and work against physicians’ efforts to persuade skeptical people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The first example came on March 16, in a San Jose Mercury News headline blurting out: “3 Hawaii Residents Fully Vaccinated Against COVID19 Are Infected With The Coronavirus.” The story referred to these three cases as “breakthrough” cases and noted that one of them was a fully‐vaccinated health care worker who had visited multiple cities on the U.S. mainland and tested positive on return to Oahu. The very last sentence of the news story stated:
According to the state health department, the fully vaccinated people who tested positive did not become severely ill and none of them are known to have transmitted the virus.
On March 18, I came across a similar story on the Bay News 9 website serving the Tampa Bay region of Florida. The headline breathlessly stated: “Vaccinated Worker Tests Positive For COVID in ‘Breakthrough’ Case.” It reported on a 27‐year‐old home health care nurse who was fully vaccinated with the Pfizer mRNA vaccine and tested positive on a routine COVID screening test she is required to take for work. A repeat test confirmed the screening test. It quoted the nurse as saying, “It still is shocking that I’m positive. I have no symptoms.”
The most important lines in each story are those that mention the “breakthrough” cases are mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic. These should not be called “breakthrough” cases. They are among the expected 5% of people for whom the vaccine does not provide complete protection. That’s what 95% efficacy means.
Their infections were described as mild to asymptomatic because even without complete protection, the vaccines provided enough protection. It confirms what we’ve known for some time about the mRNA vaccines: they are roughly 95% effective against COVID infection, and 100% effective against severe infection and/or hospitalization.
Neither of these articles explain to readers that, while the vaccines provide no guarantee against COVID infection, they all appear to protect against severe infection requiring hospitalization—essentially rendering COVID-19 as just another one of those upper respiratory viral illnesses we are all accustomed to dealing with in everyday life. If they had done so, they may have had some educational value. Instead, the headlines and the tenor of the articles appeared clearly aimed at stoking fear—what some would call “fear porn.”
But I think the news stories do even more harm. They work against public health officials’ efforts to persuade people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. With surveys showing significant portions of the population “leery” of getting vaccinated, headlines that call into question the effectiveness of the vaccines are the last thing needed right now if the goal is to rapidly immunize enough people to reach herd immunity in the near future.