From today’s New York Times (with apologies for wonky formatting.)
Preparing vaccines in Rochester Hills, Mich. Emily Elconin for The New York Times
The C.D.C. has begun to publish data on Covid outcomes among people who have received booster shots, and the numbers are striking:
Based on 25 U.S. jurisdictions. | Source: C.D.C.
As you can see, vaccination without a booster provides a lot of protection. But a booster takes somebody to a different level.
This data underscores both the power of the Covid vaccines and their biggest weakness — namely, their gradual fading of effectiveness over time, as is also the case with many other vaccines. If you received two Moderna or Pfizer vaccine shots early last year, the official statistics still count you as “fully vaccinated.” In truth, you are only partially vaccinated.
Once you get a booster, your risk of getting severely ill from Covid is tiny. It is quite small even if you are older or have health problems.
The average weekly chance that a boosted person died of Covid was about one in a million during October and November (the most recent available C.D.C. data). Since then, the chances have no doubt been higher, because of the Omicron surge. But they will probably be even lower in coming weeks, because the surge is receding and Omicron is milder than earlier versions of the virus. For now, one in a million per week seems like a reasonable estimate.
That risk is not zero, but it is not far from it. The chance that an average American will die in a car crash this week is significantly higher — about 2.4 per million. So is the average weekly death rate from influenza and pneumonia — about three per million.
With a booster shot, Covid resembles other respiratory illnesses that have been around for years. It can still be nasty. For the elderly and immunocompromised, it can be debilitating, even fatal — much as the flu can be. The Omicron surge has been so terrible because it effectively subjected tens of millions of Americans to a flu all at once.
For the unvaccinated, of course, Covid remains many times worse than the flu.
I’m highlighting these statistics because there is still a large amount of vaccine skepticism in the U.S. I have heard it frequently from readers in the past week, after our poll on Covid attitudes and partisanship, as well as the “Daily” episode about the poll.
This vaccine skepticism takes two main forms. The more damaging form is the one that’s common among Republicans. They’re so skeptical of vaccines — partly from misinformation coming from conservative media figures and Republican politicians — that many remain unvaccinated.
Look at this detail from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest portrait of vaccination: Incredibly, there are more unvaccinated Republican adults than boosted Republican adults.
From a survey of 1,536 adults in Jan. 2022. | Source: Kaiser Family Foundation
This lack of vaccination is killing people. “It’s cost the lives of people I know, including just last week a friend of 35 years, a person I met on one of the first weekends of my freshman year of college,” David French, a conservative writer who lives in Tennessee, wrote in The Atlantic. “I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to see person after person fall to a virus when a safe and effective shot would have almost certainly not just saved their life but also likely saved them from even having a serious case of the disease.”
Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine, estimates that in the second half of last year, 200,000 Americans needlessly lost their lives because they refused Covid vaccines. “Three doses of either Pfizer or Moderna will save your life,” Hotez told me. “It’s the only way you can be reasonably assured that you will survive a Covid-19 infection.” (Young children, who are not yet eligible for the vaccines, are also highly unlikely to get very sick.)
The vaccines don’t prevent only death. Local data shows the risks of hospitalization are extremely low, too. Vaccination also reduces the risk of long Covid to very low levels.
Healthy and anxious
The second form of vaccine skepticism is among Democrats — although many would recoil at any suggestion that they are vaccine skeptics. Most Democrats are certainly not skeptical about getting a shot. But many are skeptical that the vaccines protect them.
About 41 percent of Democratic voters say they are worried about getting “seriously sick” with Covid, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last week. That’s a very high level of anxiety for a tiny risk.
Here’s the proof that much of the fear is irrational: Young Democrats are more worried about getting sick than old Democrats, even though the science says the opposite should be true.
From a survey of 1,536 adults in Jan. 2022. | Source: Kaiser Family Foundation
The most plausible explanation for this pattern is political ideology. Younger Democrats are significantly more liberal than older Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center (and other pollsters, too). Ideology tends to shape Covid views, for a complex mix of often irrational reasons. The more liberal you are, the more worried about Covid you tend to be; the more conservative you are, the less worried you tend to be.
I know that many liberals believe an exaggerated sense of personal Covid risk is actually a good thing, because it pushes the country toward taking more precautions. Those precautions, according to this view, will reduce Covid’s death toll, which truly is horrific right now. In a later newsletter this week, I will consider that argument.
For now, I’ll simply echo the many experts who have pleaded with Americans to get vaccinated and boosted.
Answers and convenience
What might help increase the country’s ranks of vaccinated? Vaccine mandates, for one thing — although many Republican politicians, as well as the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court, oppose broad mandates. Private companies can still impose mandates on their employees and customers.
Without mandates, the best hope for increased vaccination is probably community outreach. While many unvaccinated Americans are firmly opposed to getting a shot, others — including some Democrats and independents — remain agnostic. If getting a vaccination is convenient and a nurse or doctor is available to answer questions, they will consider it.
“I cannot count how many people I’ve spoken to about the Covid vaccine who have been like, ‘No, I don’t think so. No,’” Dr. Kimberly Manning of Emory University told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Then I run into them two weeks later and they tell me they got vaccinated.”
Related: “You have to scratch your head and say, ‘How the heck did this happen?’” Dr. Anthony Fauci told Michael Barbaro on today’s episode of “The Daily,” about the partisan gap in Covid attitudes. Fauci also predicted that people who were anxious about Covid would become less so as caseloads fell.
In Times Opinion, James Martin, a Jesuit priest, argues that schadenfreude over vaccine skeptics’ suffering warps the soul.
Cold and flu season is upon us. And although experts note that “strengthening your immune system” isn’t a quick fix — after all, it is a system with multiple components — there are common sense things that can help.
Get your flu shot. It’s never a guarantee, but studies have shown it can lessen the severity of illness if you do get sick.
Wash your hands often, and use antibacterial wipes when you’re out and about.
Regular chiropractic adjustments can relieve compression in nerve pathways.
Reduce your intake of sugar, caffeine, alcohol and processed foods.
Eat plenty of colorful fruits and veggies to boost vitamin C and other nutrients.
Get extra sleep.
Identify causes of chronic stress in your life, and try to address them.
Drink plenty of water, more than normal.
Take in more Vitamin D. 15 minutes of daily sun exposure on unprotected skin is all you need; then apply that sunblock!
Apple cider vinegar thins out mucus in the throat, moving it out of your respiratory system. Hate the taste, or worry about direct contact of acid with your teeth? It’s available in capsules (Amazon has a lot of options) and may help with weight loss.
Don’t smoke. (Did you really need another reason?!)