Monday, January 3, 2022

VACCINE MATH: Why Anti-Vax Claims Don't Add Up

 For the third straight year, Coronavirus cases are once again seeing a winter surge. Both personally and online, I’ve heard many folks say that they are testing positive and feeling horrible. Among the cases that I’ve recently become aware of are my fellow conservative commentators, Jonah Goldberg and David French, both of whom were vaccinated. This leads to a question that I hear often these days, namely, “If so many people are vaccinated then why are COVID cases increasing?”

As with many questions that can fit easily on a meme or a bumper sticker, the answer has several parts and is complex. Very often, the people asking the question aren’t really interested in the answer and are just asking the question to make a point. Or maybe their eyes glaze over before it can be adequately explained. At any rate, these phenomena help the pointed question to spread much more quickly than the answer.

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

The first part of the answer is the most obvious and that’s that breakthrough infections exist. What’s more, as COVID-19 mutates, breakthrough infections are becoming more common because the current vaccines were based on the original alpha strain.

This leads to another common objection from the anti-vax/anti-mandate crowd, which often avers that the vaccines are worthless because they don’t block 100 percent of infections. I’ve even been told that COVID vaccines are not real vaccines because they don’t block all new infections and/or because booster shots are needed.

This is a logical fallacy called “raising the bar” or “moving the goalposts” that shows that that the objectors don’t really understand vaccines. After all, no vaccine is 100 percent effective and many require more than one dose. In fact, one of the most commonly used vaccines, the flu vaccine, is only effective for one flu season and averages about 40 percent effectiveness at preventing infection, yet no one denies that the flu vaccine is a real vaccine.

While it’s still too early to put a number on the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines against Omicron, the three-dose course is almost certainly more effective at preventing the disease than the flu vaccine, and perhaps more importantly, the three COVID vaccines used in the US are very effective at preventing serious cases of COVID that require hospitalization. A Johnson & Johnson booster was rated as 85 percent effective against hospitalization and three doses of the Pfizer vaccine were found to increase effectiveness 25-fold over two doses. A third dose of Moderna reportedly increases effectiveness 37-fold.

The important thing to remember is that vaccines don’t have to be impenetrable to be valuable. As an analogy, a bulletproof vest is not a guarantee that no bullet can hurt you. Bullets can strike your body in unprotected areas and large caliber bullets might even penetrate through the vest. Still, body armor gives you an edge over being totally unprotected and if I was going to be in a firefight, I’d rather have partial protection than none at all.

The next set of figures to consider are vaccination rates. As of December 30, Vermont was the state with the highest rate of vaccinations at 77 percent. That sounds like a lot, but 77 percent is not nearly enough for herd immunity, especially considering the diminished effectiveness of vaccines against the new variants. With a population of about 624,000 people, that leaves 143,000 Vermonters who are either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated. In either case, they are highly vulnerable to COVID-19.

The 143,000 undervaccinated Vermonters provide an ample breeding ground for the virus. Vermont reported 1,352 new cases at press time, which is only a fraction of the pool of undervaccinated citizens.

But wait, you say, a lot of those people have natural immunity since they are COVID survivors. But natural antibodies have the same problems recognizing and defending against the mutant COVID variants that vaccine-created antibodies do. Even before Omicron, a study showed that unvaccinated COVID survivors were more than twice as likely to be reinfected as people who were vaccinated.

Breakdowns in the data also confirm that the COVID outbreak in Vermont is chiefly a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The current data summary shows that only 2.4 percent of fully vaccinated Vermonters have experienced breakthrough infections. More detailed demographics from November show that COVID rates were highest among 0-11-year-olds, a demographic that had a very low vaccination rate.

More recent data from Vermont shows that the undervaccinated are both more likely to be infected and to require hospitalization. People who are not fully vaccinated are about four times as likely to get infected and account for about three-quarters of COVID hospitalizations despite making up less than a quarter of the population. For every age group, the undervaccinated account for more COVID cases than the vaccinated. These trends hold true almost everywhere with very few exceptions.

One bit of data that wasn’t available in the Vermont reports, but that is included in the online data from my home state of Georgia is that only 4.3 percent of breakthrough cases have had booster shots. Charts depicting the numbers of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths confirm that being fully vaccinated is safer than being unvaccinated, but having a booster is safer than being just fully vaccinated.

So there’s the answer to the question. While there are a few breakthrough cases, the vast majority of COVID cases are among people who are not fully vaccinated. Now, the next time you see someone make the fallacious claim that COVID cases go up as vaccination rates go up, you’ll be armed to point out the errors in their logic.

There’s an old saying that correlation does not equal causation, and that’s the case here. Vaccination rates are going up, but that’s not driving the surge in COVID cases. Instead, the problem is that vaccination rates are not going up enough.


One of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s accounts was permanently banned from Twitter over the weekend. Rep. Greene’s official account, @RepMTG, remains active while her notorious personal account, @mtgreenee, has been removed.

The Georgia Republican reportedly tweeted a graph that purported to show data from VAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, showing a dramatic increase in vaccine deaths from the COVID vaccines. Chip Roy (R-Texas) retweeted what he claims is the same data on his account.

VAERS data has been used by Greene and others to attempt to paint the COVID vaccines as dangerous, but what many people don’t realize is that the “adverse” events reported in the system are not necessarily due to the vaccine.

The VAERS website explains:

VAERS is a passive reporting system, meaning it relies on individuals to send in reports of their experiences to CDC and FDA. VAERS is not designed to determine if a vaccine caused a health problem [emphasis mine], but is especially useful for detecting unusual or unexpected patterns of adverse event reporting that might indicate a possible safety problem with a vaccine.

It goes back to the question of correlation or causation. VAERS deals with correlation but does not confirm a causative relationship.

Take my case for example. Back in November, I got my Moderna booster shot. A few days later, I was out running and had a bad fall. I landed mostly on my face, breaking my nose, and needed stitches in my face and knees. I was really, really sore for about a week.

Enter the V-Safe post-vaccine check-in. When I got the next few follow-up texts, I could honestly say that I had a new onset of symptoms that included muscle aches and a cough that was attributed to drainage from my broken nose. The check-in form only asks about symptoms. It doesn’t ask if they were caused by the vaccine, the virus, or something else.

I couldn’t find a definitive answer on whether V-Safe check-ins are fed into VAERS, but the principle is the same. Both V-Safe and VAERS are raw data and neither considers whether the symptom is linked to the vaccine.

To date, there have been more than 508 million COVID vaccine doses administered in the US. With anything that common, there will be adverse reactions afterward. If you did a hot dog check-in and followed every hot dog-eater for a few weeks after their meal, you’d find lots of health problems and thousands of deaths, but that doesn’t mean the hot dogs caused those adverse reactions. (Then again, it might be related in some cases given the nutritional value of hot dogs, especially if they are a regular staple rather than an occasional treat.) And that’s what you see in VAERS.

An additional error is that COVID vaccines are far more common than most of the other vaccines. More than 508 million COVID vaccine doses have been administered in the US alone, almost all of them in 2021. By way of comparison, about 180 million flu vaccines are administered annually. When only raw numbers are considered, it is logical that more doses would result in more adverse reactions.

Marjorie Taylor Greene abused her Twitter account. Over the past few months, she repeatedly violated the Terms of Service with tweets that included anti-vaccine propaganda, conspiracy theories, comparing pandemic mitigations to the Holocaust, and QAnon. No one has a right to access a private platform. That includes presidents and members of Congress.

Twitter was right to ban her. Frankly, I don’t know why it took so long.

Good riddance.

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve got one this year. As some of you know (because I mentioned it in the last section), I like to run. Last year, I decided to run a 10K (6.2 miles) once a week and I’ve mostly kept to that goal.

For 2022, I’ve decided that I want to run a half-marathon. A marathon is 26.2 miles so a half is 13.1 miles. I’ve run this distance informally a couple of times, but I’ve never done an actual race at that distance. I think 2022 is going to be my year though.

On today’s Tweet of the Day, I’m going to toot my own horn. As my dad likes to say, “He that tooteth not his own horn, getteth the same not tooted.” This one needs no explanation.

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