On Monday, Vermont hit a new gear in the race against the coronavirus. Months after the state began its phased vaccine rollout, anyone 16 or older who lives or works in Vermont is now eligible to get the jab. As the national vaccination campaign ramps up and rolls on, the state’s broadening eligibility hopefully signals the beginning of the end for this protracted crisis that has gripped the world for over a long and painful year.
It also means we are entering a new phase of assessing risk associated with COVID-19. As with any relatively new risk, sensibly incorporating it into our worldviews is likely to be tough. The pandemic’s rapid onset last year and the brutal toll it has exacted was already a substantial shock to our risk-management systems at the personal, community and governance level. Now, we are not too far removed from having to reconfigure our risk outlook once again.
A disease that killed more than half a million Americans, sickened millions more and rent the very fabric of our economy and society is being made far less dangerous before our eyes by way of remarkably effective vaccines. And according to the available data, they are indeed very effective. The Moderna and Pfizer doses going into Americans’ arms as we speak, for instance, have efficacy rates well over 90 percent and reduce risk of severe disease or death even further.
Just like there is no such thing as zero risk, there is no such thing as a perfect vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has logged 5,800 vaccinated people in the U.S. who have become infected with coronavirus — out of 77 million Americans who have received their full dose. That’s approximately a 1 in 11,000 chance, with the likelihood of severe disease or death from COVID after vaccination infinitesimally smaller — considerably less than, say, the probability the average American faces of dying in an auto accident or while choking on food.
There is nothing that will quickly and cleanly wipe away the psychological trauma the novel coronavirus has wrought on us, and that will almost certainly affect how we onboard our new risk-assessment framework. The return to normalcy that we all crave will, paradoxically, be quite difficult.
COVID risk alarmism, however, has real consequences. The social and economic upheaval brought on by the pandemic has fallen disproportionately hard on our most vulnerable neighbors. Public health strictures were adopted last year as a painful necessity to blunt COVID’s spread, but they should only be maintained so long as they’re supported by the data. And if restrictions are still supported by data and medical experts into the near future, the requisite buy-in to make them effective requires social capital that is squandered by unnecessary alarmism.
The only road that leads to victory over the virus runs through vaccinations — not just producing vaccines, but getting them into people’s arms. Inflating or exaggerating risks facing the fully vaccinated could mean not enough Americans line up to get the vaccine — the biggest risk we actually face right now.
We owe it to ourselves and to our communities to draw the line between risk assessment and risk obsession, given that we must accept risk at some level in the equations of daily life. That requires holding in our heads the somewhat complicated idea that the novel coronavirus has been an extremely dangerous viral pathogen that remains a critical threat but will eventually — hopefully — be reduced to a far more manageable risk category.
This adaptive and nuanced assessment of risk, already a delicate proposition, has been constantly distorted by politics since the virus arrived on our shores. As has always been the case, finding the way forward through a health crisis need not be a political crisis. When faced with key decisions on the road to reopening and recovery in Vermont and beyond, we should all check our political ideologies at the door and let our actions be guided by data, of which there is fortunately plenty, thanks to the overall transparency of federal health regulators, state officials and vaccine producers alike.
None of this is to downplay the still-real risks of COVID-19 or its devastating effect on our nation and the world. To be sure, we aren’t quite out of the woods yet, tired though we might be of that refrain. Safely reaching herd immunity means shots in as many American arms as reasonably possible, and while vaccine production is roaring and eligibility is widening, lots of Americans — and Vermonters — are not yet fully vaccinated.
Still, vaccine appointments opening up for everyone 16 or older in the Green Mountain State is an encouraging sign that we’re on our way to victory against the viral enemy. Now is the time to think clearly about what our risk picture should be in the post-COVID-crisis era — hopefully the not-too-distant future.