Aug 2, 2021 - Health

The double-sided risk of bad vaccine communication

Illustration of a sunscreen bottle spoofed to be a COVID defense cream.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The public conversation around who's at risk as the Delta variant continues to spread in the U.S. has gone off the rails, and it's very possible that it will just get worse.

What we're watching: Even as experts and officials try to put vaccinated Americans' risk in context, the world is still gathering data on the vaccines' effectiveness. Reassuring the majority of vaccinated Americans they d0n't need to freak out could backfire if it causes those who are at risk to let down their guard.

Driving the news: Public health experts spent the weekend trying to reassure vaccinated Americans that they're not at a high risk of coronavirus infection, and certainly not of hospitalization or death.

  • But at the same time, researchers around the world are trying to determine how much the vaccines' effectiveness against severe disease wanes over time, and some countries are going ahead with booster shots for immunocompromised and elderly people.
  • Israel has recommended that immunocompromised people and those 60 and older receive a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine, and Germany plans to begin offering boosters to the elderly and at-risk beginning in September, AFP reports.
  • U.S. officials increasingly think that at least some Americans will need booster shots in the coming months, and Pfizer has also been publicly making the case for boosters.

Between the lines: Risk may look a lot different for vaccinated nursing home residents and older Americans, especially those who received their shots early on, than a vaccinated 20-something without any health conditions.

  • The number of nursing home cases is rising, in part because nearly 2 in 10 residents aren't vaccinated and more than 4 in 10 nursing home workers aren't.
  • But breakthrough cases are also more problematic in nursing homes, tweeted Ashish Jha, dean of Brown's School of Public Health. "[Nursing home] residents were among the first to get vaccinated," Jha wrote. "Based on Israeli data, their immunity may be waning."
  • "And second, they are vulnerable, often frail," he added. "So a breakthrough infection, which might be a nuisance for a healthy person, can be very serious for a frail person."

The scientific world is trying to gather and interpret new data in real time, and nuanced data is difficult to communicate well to an anxious and frustrated public.

  • But data about Delta's transmissibility has not been communicated well.
  • "The Biden administration's handling of the Delta surge has left Americans confused and frustrated, fueling media overreaction and political manipulation," Axios' Mike Allen wrote over the weekend.

The bottom line: The vaccines work extremely well, including against Delta, and the vaccinated are at much lower risk right now than those who aren't vaccinated.

  • But that doesn't mean no one who is vaccinated is at risk, and it also doesn't mean that anyone's risk can't change over time.
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