Data will not bridge the COVID-19 vaccine political abyss

Data will not bridge the COVID-19 vaccine political abyss
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) disseminates reams of data on COVID-19, including the number of confirmed infections, the number of deaths, the number of people vaccinated, breakthrough infections, and much more. As the delta variant spreads, solidifying its hold as the dominant variant in circulation, government and health officials’ pleas for people to be vaccinated ring louder with each passing day. 

Over 20 percent of the adult population continues to be COVID-19 vaccine-hesitant. Anytime a person makes a calculated decision to avoid something, it is based on weighing the balance between the associated risks and rewards. Though such analysis may not be conscious, these people have decided that the associated benefits do not compensate for the risk of being vaccinated. 

Many who are vaccinated are incredulous at why some people remain vaccine-hesitant. They cite data on hospitalizations and deaths amongst those unvaccinated, yet the vaccine-hesitant group remains staunchly entrenched in not succumbing to vaccination pressures. 

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With so much data available, it is not surprising that there will be contradictory information. Perhaps the problem lies with how each group interprets the data.  

The pro-vaccine camp likely cites the number of deaths — over 600,000 and counting in the U.S. — the associated reduced life expectancy and the growing list of long-COVID-19 cases among those who have recovered.   

On the other hand, those in the anti-vaccine camp likely cite the 98 percent recovery rate of those infected, that 95 percent of those who have died are over 50 years old, and that the majority of those who have died have had comorbidities that contributed to their death. They also likely refer to data that no less than one-third of those infected have been asymptomatic. 

The same schism holds with the vaccines themselves. Those in the pro-vaccine camp cite data on 95 percent efficacy of the vaccines and their high safety record.  

Those in the anti-vaccine camp likely look at the time frame for developing the vaccines and point out that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t fully approved them. They might also cite the number of negative outcomes reported like myocarditis amongst young males

Both groups use the same data and information but selectively choose a particular aspect of the data to frame their worldview of the virus. It seems they are cherry-picking the data available to justify their position. 

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The impact of the delta variant adds yet another wrinkle to the conflict.  

Those in the pro-vaccine camp cite low hospitalization and death rates amongst those with breakthrough infection and that over 99 percent of those hospitalized are unvaccinated. The anti-vaccine camp believes that “natural immunity” will continue to protect them.  

This means that the data are not the source of the conflict but innocent bystanders of it.   

Emotional or rational appeals to those in the anti-vaccine camp are futile. It’s plausible that no amount of data can convince them to be vaccinated. So, how can they be persuaded to get vaccinated?   

Work with the people that they trust to move them closer to vaccination. The former president did a great disservice to the nation by not endorsing the vaccines publicly, even though they were developed under his watch. Grassroot efforts to engage conservative political leaders, church leaders, and high-profile athletes to move this group is the Hail Mary pass that we need.   

To reach the anti-vaccine camp, cooperation, not criticism, is critical. Without it, no data are available that will move those in the anti-vaccine camp to vaccination.       

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public health policy.