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How to Read Scary Vaccine News

Kelsey Tylerr

Right now, and for months to come, all eyes are on the COVID vaccine rollout, the biggest mass immunization effort in US history. Amid exhaustive vaccine coverage, unsettling headlines are bound to pop up. Should you just ignore them and trust public health officials to fill us in as needed? Sure, that’s one option. But making sure you’re reading the news the right way can help too. Scary health information often loses its panic-inducing power if you evaluate it properly. Here are some tips to help you brave your news feed without losing sleep.


A reminder before reading: The COVID-19 vaccines are effective and safe

Before diving into news articles or social posts about the COVID vaccines, it’s important to understand that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are among the most effective vaccines ever created — both are about 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 overall, and closer to 100 percent at preventing severe COVID symptoms. According to the New York Times, of the 32,000 people who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in clinical trials, only one person went on to contract a severe case of COVID. And, at this point, we know COVID isn’t a virus to take lightly.

While the vaccines have common, known side effects, like arm soreness and flu-like symptoms, they’re temporary and not harmful, and they indicate that the vaccine is working as intended. The vaccines have caused a very small  number of allergic reactions, which is why EpiPens should be present during administration. But even this is preferable to a COVID infection, which an EpiPen can’t take care of.

For any alarming statistic, consider risk and probability versus benefit

As more people around the world receive injections of the vaccine, the chance of adverse reactions increases. That means more articles with headlines like “COVID Vaccine Causes Death.” “As more and more people get vaccinated, you will have the greater potential for both finding new very rare adverse events that couldn’t be identified by the vaccine trials, however large they may be,” says Dr. Michael Chang, an infectious disease physician at UTHealth in Houston. “Furthermore, with every [medical] intervention, there may be “one-off”-type of adverse events, as well.” But keep in mind that as the number of people who get vaccinated and react normally increases exponentially, the percentage of vaccinations that result in adverse events diminishes significantly. 

Basically, the probability of having a serious reaction to the vaccine is close to zero, even if it’s not exactly zero. Interestingly, research has found that people assume something is riskier when the probability of it happening is presented as “1-in-a-given-number,” vs. any number besides one. For example, 1-in-1,500,000 might be perceived as more likely than 5-in-7,500,000, even though they both express the same probability.   

Ultimately, the risk of something bad happening from a vaccine shot pales in comparison to the risk of something bad happening from COVID. “With any medicine, vaccine or treatment, you have to weigh the risk of the intervention versus the risk of holding off, using what is known at the time,” says Dr. Paul Hyman, a primary care physician in Brunswick, Maine. “For most adults, at this moment in time, the risk of holding off on getting vaccinated and possibly getting sick from COVID is much, much greater than the risks of the vaccine.”

Vet the outlet — and its motivation

This might seem obvious, but: The internet is not entirely reliable. If something seems too good, or too awful, to be true, it probably is. Beware of websites and influencers known to promote conspiracy theories. “When you hear a scary story, see if it’s corroborated by other reliable sources,” Chang says. “With an emphasis on reliable.” Apply a healthy dose of skepticism to any Facebook or Twitter post that includes claims that the vaccine is unsafe, ineffective or worse. Consider the source — if the link goes to a URL that reads something like “vaxx-danger-news.com,” it’s probably not legit. 

On a related note, remember that responsibly reported stories from credible media outlets can still have alarmist headlines. (Even-handed, low-arousing headlines are a hard sell in digital journalism.) The goal of a headline is to get you to click, not to relay properly contextualized facts. But if the story itself is just as clickbait-y as the headline, move on.

Click that link

If you’re reading a news article about the results of a health study, look for a link back to the study itself. If the article links back to a press release about the study (as opposed to the original research paper), try to find a different news article on the study that doesn’t merely parrot the press release, ideally with original quotes from multiple experts.

It’s not that study press releases are likely to be full of errors, but rather that they sometimes exaggerate or over-simplify study findings in an attempt to repackage research for the general public. One 2019 study found that it’s very common for medical university press releases to omit information that places research findings in context, such as study limitations. (E.g., if study participants aren’t representative of the general population, that might be a relevant limitation.) And multiple studies have found an association between the quality of health and science news inspired by press releases and the quality of the releases themselves.

We’re still learning about the COVID vaccine; any research on it is going to include important caveats. If an article you read doesn’t have any, be suspicious.

Correlation is not causation

Of course, we’ve all heard this statistics 101 mantra. But it’s critical to keep in mind when you’re  reading COVID vaccine news.

Reports of elderly people in Norway dying after getting the COVID vaccine were scary — especially followed by news that Chinese health officials were asking for additional information from countries that had documented similar deaths. The truth, though tragic, is far less alarming: The 33 Norwegians aged 75 and over died who died following immunization had already been seriously ill. Norway also clarified that there was no direct link between their deaths and the vaccine.

Before jumping to conclusions, remember that an occurrence — even a horrible one — isn’t necessarily caused been caused by what preceded it. “There are significant differences between association, correlation and causation,” Chang says. “It is important to recognize which relationship is being discussed.”

Stay informed — and listen to your doctor

Of course a headline about a vaccine-related death is going to catch your attention. Reading the full story may help you put a tragic incident into perspective, but it may also provoke some fears and doubts. If you have questions about the vaccine, talk to your doctor. Members of the medical community may not have all the answers, but they’re here to help. “During this pandemic, we have had to make decisions with incomplete information,” Hyman says. “We have to be OK knowing we did the best we could, and that we will learn more as time goes by.”

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