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Irresponsible reporting on breakthrough COVID infections

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Illustration by Greg Storey

August 10, 2021

If you don’t live under a rock, you’re probably growing frustrated with the increasing daily updates on how the Delta variant is ravaging the American population, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

And if you’re vaccinated against COVID, you may be feeling sort of like I am right now—frustrated, confused, mildly anxious but mostly angry that we’re still even in this mess because people chose not to get vaccinated and thus provided a breeding ground for variants.

I read a somewhat reassuring article yesterday that I proceeded to send to vaccinated family and friends. The gist of it was that the mainstream media has been extraordinarily irresponsible in reporting on breakthrough infections among vaccinated people. 

For starters, some of the reporting is just flat out wrong. The article cites a NYT tweet that read: 

The Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated, an internal CDC report said” and was widely refuted by experts, including a communications manager on the White House COVID task force.

Other media tendencies include citing the scariest possible statistics. For example, an NBC headline read that “at least 125,000 fully vaccinated Americans have tested positive” for COVID. Of course the fact that this statistic is equivalent to 0.08 percent of fully vaccinated Americans was only stated in a subheading.

Here’s an example. One major development within the last week was the post-4th of July Provincetown COVID outbreak, where 74% of infected were vaccinated. Alarming? Definitely. 

But, what media outlets weren’t reporting was that Provincetown is in one of the most highly vaccinated areas of the country, making the likelihood of such a statistic not only possible but also reasonably categorizable within the “breakthrough infection” category.

I also found this Twitter thread really helpful when considering statistics cited by news articles, which builds upon the idea that the reporting of sick vaccinated individuals is misleading through adherence to percentages. 

My biggest frustration with this kind of reporting is that it not only creates anxiety for those who did all the right things, but also grants justification to those who did not receive the vaccine at a time when our only solution is more vaccinated individuals.

The point is vaccines work. Our country had all of the right resources but didn’t get enough shots, and now we’re putting out all of the wrong messaging. News stations should be emphasizing how much vaccines help, not focusing on the small percentage of times that they’ve failed.

I’m not saying don’t be careful. Certainly continue wearing your mask and abide by CDC guidance and state laws. Take precautions. Breakthrough infections are very real and should be taken seriously.

But if you’re a vaccinated American, you should at least feel confident of these three things. You are not the source of the problem. You don’t have to live with the same level of fear that we all felt last year. And you have done all the right things; the media just isn’t doing its job well.

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