Volunteer Veronica Noland explains the reason for closing of the COVID-19 mass vaccination site that was administering the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at Elgin's Eastside Recreation Center.
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway. As vaccine rollouts continue across the country and some Americans begin to feel a collective sense of relief, confusion around how to manage this space of the pandemic, including the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine remains. Some of that confusion is partly because of the mixed messages health and government officials have doled out since the pandemic began, from whether to wear masks, to whether schools are safe, and more. But the media also share a role in making public health information clear. Here to talk about how well we're doing about the corona virus is James Hamblin, a doctor and staff writer at The Atlantic. James, welcome back to the show.
James Hamblin: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: You recently tweeted and I'm quoting, "Pausing vaccination to look into a possible one in a million side effect may scare people. It could also just as easily be seen as reassuring proof that close attention is being paid to, and extremely high priority put on, vaccine safety." Why'd you tweet that?
James: I think in the early moments after that decision was announced, the way that this is being interpreted, this pause of vaccination is interpreted, is is really important. I totally understand that the reaction among many people might be to be afraid or to think that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is bad. Overall, this is actually evidence of the system working as it's supposed to. We're supposed to be monitoring for any side effects really closely.
Then in traditional circumstances, what you do is you pause and evaluate and see. There's a slight elevation in the number of cases here. Is it definitely related and how do we predict this outcome? Is there anything we can do to stop it, to say, maybe if you're in a certain age group and you've had low platelet counts, you should avoid this particular vaccine. We should expect similar issues to come up in the future and hope that we can continue to get safer and safer with the administration of vaccines.
Tanzina: James, it's interesting, we had a conversation early on in the show with a doctor, emergency room physician, who said one of the issues is not having doctors or medical experts in newsrooms. You happen to be both a doctor and a journalist. From your perspective, how has the media done in terms of handling the corona virus messaging? Because one of the things that Dr. Ranney pointed out earlier in the conversation was that, as you know, we need to get a story, right? The media needs to get a story. Have we been making that balance between getting the story and not terrifying people?
James: I think for the most part, journalists have been key to this pandemic, especially under the Trump administration where we did not have reliable messaging about basic things. We had the president of the United States saying that the virus was going to go away and it was crucial that journalists got the message out there that this was not a two week problem, this is something that's going to last. Now, it's a more interesting situation where there's less political-- there's less politicization of things and there's a weird sense of limbo where we've just gotten accustomed to roughly 1,000 Americans dying every day, and the nature of the news being what it is, it becomes a top story when there's been one death that may have been related to a vaccine.
That's not to say it's not important, but I think in this moment, we might be able to do a better job of keeping things in context and helping to not panic people. I understand it's very difficult because it's important that people who've been vaccinated and are experiencing any of the symptoms that are described in these cases with the Johnson & Johnson clots, seek medical attention. It's necessary to cover, but still the odds of having a seriously bad outcome are so, so much far higher from having COVID-19 than having a vaccine, that I do want to keep that in perspective.
Tanzina: I also want to talk about the messaging around vaccines and the narratives that have emerged. Now, I want to be clear when I say this, that it is, we know that Black and brown communities in the United States have reason to distrust the medical establishment. That is historical. That is part of our country's narrative history. However, I wonder, and I'm going to just ask you straight out. I feel like the narrative of hesitancy is overplayed among communities of color and often underplayed when it's a political question i.e we saw some reporting about 40% of Republicans saying they did not plan to get the vaccine. What are the dangers of that, of those narratives?
James: You don't want to associate people of any particular racial, ethnic group of being-- there are connotations of people being against science or unwilling to help out the rest of the community by getting vaccinated. That's a dangerous line to walk, while also acknowledging there are many different forms that vaccine hesitancy takes, and when it is a rabid politicization and people are just in one camp and they're not going to change their mind, that's a different problem than someone who has what's called justified distrust through years of, decades of disenfranchisement, generations of people being poorly treated by the medical and scientific establishments. You just need to think differently about what's the hesitation there. I think it can be informative to think about these different types of hesitancy and certainly not to lump them all together.
Tanzina: Also want to talk a little bit about the messaging we're getting from the federal government here under the Trump administration, even wearing a mask was something that the president really pushed back on doing, even when he himself contracted the corona virus. Yet President Biden has essentially refused to not wear a mask. Almost every meeting we see him in, he is wearing a mask, he has set targets for for vaccine distribution. How effective would you say is Biden's communication, whether it's direct or indirect, to the American public?
James: I think he's being much more effective, certainly very consistent in terms of mask wearing and he doesn't even, shouldn't even need to wear one in many situations since he's he's vaccinated and is surrounded by people who are vaccinated, and the current guidance is that when you're in those situations, you should be fine. He's doing it just to normalize the appearance and to show that you can be a person out in the world being cautious and live your life and that's crucial.
These are basic measures that should be very easy to unify around, there should not be polarization. I hope that going forward we see less of that, because everyone just wants this to be done. We're so close to what could be considered a finish line, if we can just get people vaccinated. There's a lot at stake in these next few weeks and months, and we should not be divided around these simple measures as to what has to be done
Tanzina: We talked about how the vaccine in some areas has been politicized, and the narrative around vaccine hesitation has morphed depending on who we're talking about. Ultimately, I'm wondering, now that this news about the J&J vaccine has come out, how right wing media is processing this news, how they're disseminating it to their audiences.
James: From what I've seen and including a statement from Donald Trump, there is an attempt to polarize people around it, to say that the Biden administration is overreacting, a sort of antagonism to whatever happens. But in effect, the statement from Trump was the most pro-vaccine thing I've heard from him since the vaccines have been around, honestly. He's saying we need to get these out there. People need to get vaccinated. In a weird way, for whatever reason, it was a much needed encouragement from him.
This is the president who got vaccinated without telling people or without having press photos, which would have been key, and clearly has a lot of people's ear among this vaccine hesitant group of white Republicans, and could do a lot to turn the tide by being out there, campaigning pro-vaccination generally. Now, it takes a pause in vaccination for he and his followers to become extremely pro-vaccine. It just shows that there is polarization here that's political in nature, unfortunately, even around something that has every reason to have strong bi-partisan support.
Tanzina: Isn't there-- I saw a report that Sean Spicer, who's with Newsmax, I believe now. He's tweeted about or posted on social media about him getting the vaccine. I'm just wondering how that is-- there's only so far you can run from science, or am I wrong?
James: Well, vaccines are interesting because they pose this freeloader dilemma where there's always, you can be at herd immunity if you're at around 80% of the community. So you could have some people who are in a vaccinated community where everyone around them is doing their part, and yet they freeload, don't get vaccinated and never get sick, and then are convinced that they didn't need to get vaccinated in the first place. It's possible that some people will forego vaccination and be okay, but that would not be the expectation. At the rates we're looking at right now, we are not close to herd immunity, where people can depend on their community's immunity to protect them.
Tanzina: I was just going to say we need a certain amount of the overall population either to be vaccinated or to have the antibodies, or both, in order for us to get to that point. It would seem like this is a public health emergency that needs to be talked about and advertised, and Americans need to be encouraged to do this. If we're not all doing that, that could create pockets of lacking of vaccines.
We were talking a little bit earlier about the state of Mississippi, for example, where there are thousands of vaccine appointments open, and people just aren't keeping pace with the first shot, for example, compared to the national average. When you see things like that, that might be a direct result of media or politics. Does that give you concern?
James: It does. I think these are solvable problems, but they often require direct conversations with people that are trusted, so physicians or family members, local leaders in the community. They won't really come from national media or national political figures very likely, because people bring their own sets of concerns to this issue as to why they might not want to get vaccinated. In reality, whether you're on the side of political spectrum where you value individual protection, or you're on a side where you value collective good, in either case, there's a pro-vaccine argument. This vaccine will protect you, it will make you not get sick and able to get back to normal life.
Even if you don't care about yourself very much and you think you wouldn't mind getting COVID-19, for whatever reason, I can't recommend that, but you need to do it in order to protect everyone around you, especially kids. There have been tens of thousands of kids hospitalized with this virus. They cannot get vaccinated and so they remain at risk as long as we allow this virus to circulate in our community.
There's every reason to get vaccinated and I'm confident that people who are hesitant right now can be reached, but I think it requires family and friends, people out there who know people who are unsure or just have concerns, to have long conversations, do a lot of listening, a lot of asking questions and get them across the line to get vaccinated.
Tanzina: James Hamblin is a doctor and staff writer at The Atlantic. James, thank you so much.
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