As COVID-19 cases drop and immunization rates rise, Americans are proving the media's glass-half-empty predictions about vaccine hesitancy mostly false. It turns out that people don't like getting sick, and they'll take steps to protect themselves when given the tools to do so.
Americans aren't all that eager to get COVID shots—at least that's the impression reporters gave us for months. Story after story in early 2021 warned of growing vaccine hesitancy fueled by an onslaught of "misinformation." Many popular media outlets were eager to make waning vaccine uptake an explicitly partisan (and even racial) story, with clearly defined villains misleading their audiences and putting everyone at risk as a result. Here was CNN's version of events just a month ago:
We had data at the time contradicting this narrative (as ACSH pointed out), but it's now undeniable that COVID cases in the US are plummeting, which is only possible because increasing numbers of Americans are getting their shots. Contrast CNN's May 24 report on vaccine uptake with it's ominous video above:
Across the US, roughly 61.3% of American adults have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose and about 49.6% are fully vaccinated, CDC data shows. More than 49% of the country's total population has gotten at least one shot while more than 39% of the population is fully vaccinated, the data shows.
The impact of vaccines is now obvious: the country is recording some of the lowest Covid-19 metrics in roughly a year and officials say it could soon get even better than that.
Cases are down almost 60 percent, and the seven-day average of COVID deaths is down 23 percent from just a month ago. 74 percent of people 65 and older are fully vaccinated, meaning the majority of those most vulnerable to severe infection and death are now protected. Hospitalizations are dropping in response, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CBS on Sunday. The network also reported that cases hadn't been this low since June 2020.
NPR couldn't resist the urge to warn about potential variants taking hold in a handful of states, which was an odd rabbit trail since the existing vaccines are reasonably effective against the variants. And to the extent that they don't offer protection, the boosters now being tested probably will. Still, NPR acknowledged, citing Boston College public health expert Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, that vaccination may very well end the pandemic by July 4.
Journalism, not forecasting
The media repeatedly warned about slipping vaccine coverage, even as they reported on surveys showing that vaccine uptake was increasing. Even among the institutions conducting the polling, the narrative seemed to be that America was nearing a “tipping point” in its enthusiasm for COVID immunization. It wasn't immediately obvious why this was the case. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported on May 4 that the number of states with less than 50 percent vaccine coverage has dropped to just 13, and the situation has clearly improved since then if experts are anticipating an end to the pandemic.
All that to say: the media should just report the numbers. If hesitancy threatens to cut vaccine uptake to dangerous levels, there are ways to deal with it. Trying to predict the future isn't one of them.
People don't like getting sick
Over the last year, we've routinely been told that people are stubbornly anti-science, to the point of harming ourselves and others. The evidence says otherwise. We're actually quite risk-averse as a species, and we saw this phenomenon at work during the pandemic. When news of a dangerous virus on a global rampage hit the headlines, many of us voluntarily took measures to avoid infection before being told to do so. As the authors of a January 2021 study noted:
Data on individual behaviors such as visits to businesses, walking or driving show dramatic declines days to weeks prior to the implementation of business closures and mandatory stay-at-home orders in our study countries … [P]opulations in affected countries were internalizing the impact of the pandemic in China, Italy and New York, and noting a growing set of recommendations to reduce social contacts ...
It turns out that we don't like getting sick. When given the tools and information to protect ourselves, many of us take advantage of them. That's what we saw before the vaccines were authorized, and we're seeing the same thing today as more people roll up their sleeves to get a shot.