As Nation Speeds to Vaccinate All, Maryland's Path Shows Challenges Ahead

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot March 25 at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden Family Life Center in Upper Marlboro, Md.

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Quickly mass-producing and widely distributing a vaccine that’s effective against a novel viral pandemic is a herculean task that, fortunately, the U.S. has largely accomplished. While we’ve overcome many of the practical hurdles, we still face an intangible obstacle that continues to trip us up: misinformation.

Despite a hurried development process for all of the coronavirus vaccines available in the U.S., by the numbers, their efficacy and safety are remarkable. Between the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson versions, tens of thousands of people were vaccinated in the clinical trial phase — and exactly zero of those people died from the vaccine, died of COVID or were hospitalized for COVID beyond 28 days after vaccination.

Medical experts agree that the ticket to the light at the end of the tunnel is reaching herd immunity through vaccinations — that is, not just manufacturing and disseminating vaccines, but getting them into Americans’ arms. Despite the overwhelmingly positive data available to date, vaccine skepticism still abounds, often helped along by rumor-mongers unbothered by a need for concrete evidence. Mendacious claims about the harms and inefficacy of vaccines aren’t just factually bankrupt; they have real-world consequences, hobbling our best advance against a viral threat that’s killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and counting. These consequences can hit home, too. The Boston Globe reported earlier this month that a critical mass of the Massachusetts State Police have elected not to get vaccinated, despite the state setting aside a cache of doses for them.

Not all vaccine skeptics are bad actors or conspiracists. Many are simply regular people trying to make a medical decision for themselves and their loved ones while awash in a sea of complex information — and misinformation. And that misinformation can be tough to address in real time, whether it stems from misleading headlines or poorly sourced memes. Given the glut of data available on COVID vaccines, those who remain reluctant should not rely on rumors but test their skepticism against the available facts.

For anyone seeking an evidence-based conversation about the safety and side effects of COVID vaccines, a good place to start is the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. Co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, VAERS is a national program that has operated since 1990 as an early warning system to detect possible safety problems in U.S.-licensed vaccines. Anyone can report an adverse vaccine reaction to VAERS, but health care professionals and vaccine manufacturers are required to report all incidents that come to their attention. While VAERS itself does not determine if a given vaccine causes a health problem, it acts as a trove of national data from which the CDC and FDA can draw relevant information and make informed vaccine safety determinations.

As such, VAERS is the definitive source for any and all adverse reactions that have occurred since the U.S. began administering COVID vaccines to the public late last year — and the numbers are telling. Of the more than 145 million shots that have gone into American arms, VAERS has received 2,509 reports of death among those who have received a vaccine — meaning 0.0017 percent of doses were followed by a death. And it’s worth noting that even this infinitesimal number amounts to a correlation but not necessarily causation, since these numbers represent people who died some time after receiving a vaccine dose, and some people can be reasonably expected to die in any given interval, vaccine or no. According to the CDC, review of the clinical information from these VAERS reports — which includes death certificates, autopsy and medical records — “revealed no evidence that vaccination contributed to patient deaths.”

At this juncture, it’s on the vaccine skeptics to face these data points and present substantive countervailing evidence — or admit that they can’t.

Of course, all conspiracy theories are, by nature, self-sealing. There’s nothing to stop anyone from spuriously claiming that any data that demonstrates vaccine safety and efficacy, no matter how clear and well-sourced, is simply manufactured by a malignant cabal for dissemination by public health experts. But given the overwhelming evidence in favor of the available COVID vaccines, the burden of proof is on the detractors — and as fact check after fact check shows, that bar never seems to be met.

As the Capitol riot demonstrated, decision-making without regard for reality leads us all down a dangerous path. On Jan. 6, it led to insurrectional violence in the nation’s capital. Now, it threatens to hamstring our best efforts to protect the vulnerable through herd immunity and put this deadly pandemic behind us. We cannot allow that. Put the noise and the polarization aside, and let the facts lead the way.


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