- We keep getting better news about how the COVID-19 vaccines will get us back to normal.
- But public-health messages continue to undersell how fast the vaccine will change our lives.
- People won’t need to wait until Christmas to behave normally.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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We keep getting better news about the COVID-19 vaccines, but the public messaging we are hearing from officials remains bizarrely cautious.
Every day it seems that there’s a positive finding about the effects of the vaccines. Observed data in Israel — which has progressed faster than any country at vaccinating its population — suggests the vaccine has been highly effective at stopping the spread of the virus, not just at stopping symptomatic disease. This comes on top of other studies that have found significant reductions in infection even after partial vaccine courses and, of course, extremely high effectiveness at preventing severe disease and death.
But at the same time, the messaging from leaders and the media is oddly downbeat. Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden are both targeting this Christmas as a time when things might be approaching normal, even though vaccines will be available to anyone who wants one about six months earlier than that. A lot of news coverage of the vaccines emphasizes a strange idea that you shouldn’t change your behavior even after you’ve gotten a vaccine that sharply reduces your risk of getting COVID-19, getting seriously ill from COVID-19, or transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19 to others.
On the other hand, a lot of things are already “normal,” despite the virus. Around the country, many people are already doing the things that we are supposedly looking forward to doing, such as dining indoors and sending their children to school in person. As the risk associated with COVID-19 falls sharply, that normality will only intensify, even if government officials say it’s not yet time to be normal.
You’re already ignoring the CDC and government health experts
One thing that is normal, as the journalist Matt Yglesias noted on Twitter, is for the government to issue overly cautious health advice and for the public to ignore that advice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells Americans to cook our hamburgers to well done and our eggs until the yolks are solidified. It tells us to use dental dams for oral sex. You don’t need the CDC’s permission to hug your vaccinated grandparent any more than you need it to eat eggs over easy.
So one silver lining about bad advice that undersells the vaccine’s benefits is that a lot of the public will surely ignore it.
But I do worry the underselling could be affecting people’s willingness to get vaccinated. If our messaging on the vaccine is heavily focused on what it won’t do for you, and contends that people will have to keep doing all the annoying things they’re doing right now, why wouldn’t that lead a lot of people to be hesitant to get the vaccine?
COVID-19 likely will never go away entirely, and people who don’t get vaccinated will remain at risk even after the public willingness to comply with restrictions has evaporated because of widespread vaccination among those who were most concerned about the disease and therefore most willing to alter their behavior. Given that COVID-19 will likely be endemic, we want as many people to get the vaccine as possible.
As such, it would be good to see more political figures emphasizing how the vaccines will allow an imminent return of normality instead of underpromising and underselling. The vaccines are a very good thing that won’t just save lives but will make many activities safe again, and people should know it.
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