Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
One in a million. That’s the probability of experiencing blood clots after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. For the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, it’s 4 in 1 million. Meanwhile, the probability of experiencing rare blood clots as a result of contracting COVID-19 is 39 in 1 million. That’s not even mentioning the host of other horrific effects those who have contracted COVID-19 have encountered.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not attempting to diminish the seriousness of vaccine safety or the tragedy of those who have dealt with intense vaccine side effects.
However, given the plague of misinformation simultaneously spreading along with COVID-19, the mass panic the recent Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause has unleashed on the general population will only further hinder efforts to achieve herd immunity and defeat COVID-19.
The only way to successfully finish off this vaccine campaign — which began with appalling mismanagement and is now crippled by conspiracies — is for officials to focus on making decisions that do not give into and feed mass panic, and for large media outlets to stop sensationalizing every single vaccine-related issue.
This past week, the Maryland Health Department paused all Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccinations, due to alarming reports of severe blood clots. While these clots are concerning, they were discovered in just eight people — a minuscule portion of the 6.8 million Americans who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine so far. This decision came after the Food and Drug Administration advised a pause in distribution so these effects could be properly investigated.
While officials investigate these blood clots, one thing that has already come out of this situation is yet another barrage of conspiracy theories and misinformation. In fact, the current most popular link on Facebook about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause comes from a conspiracy theorist, rather than from public health or government officials. This is incredibly worrying considering a crucial step in defeating COVID-19 is ensuring those eligible for vaccination actually get vaccinated, rather than give into unchecked panic and conspiracy theories.
Even if only 1 in 1 million people who get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine experience severe blood clots, public health officials still must calmly investigate what connects affected individuals while maintaining open lines of communication with the public. After all, the risk of severe blood clots because of COVID-19 is higher than the risk from receiving the very vaccine meant to inoculate against this disease.
On top of that, these vaccines have been developed during a pandemic of enormous severity and scale, so officials should anticipate that people will need reassurance that the vaccines are safe. This is especially true for issues involving how some people’s bodies are reacting to the vaccine.
It’s obvious issues are going to come up during mass distribution. These issues may be serious and worth investigating, but they are still extremely rare. Worst comes to worst, once a common denominator is found, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could be restricted to certain members of the population who are less likely to experience severe blood clots.
With this in mind, the media — especially mass media outlets — needs to be responsible about the language it uses when referring to vaccine distribution and effects, rather than using fear-mongering to get more clicks. Additionally, government officials need to step up. It’s on our elected officials to ensure their constituencies are educated about the vaccine. After all, officials have no right to hinder vaccine distribution by creating panic when millions are dead because people in power failed to take the pandemic seriously in the first place.
Right now, after a year of tragedy and waiting, we finally have the best weapons to fight the spread of COVID-19. However, it’s important to understand vaccines cannot be effective if we fail to make them accessible and if we fail to fight against baseless vaccine conspiracy theories. It would be absolutely shameful if we failed to prevent more deaths simply because our media and leaders failed once again at taking responsibility for their actions.
Caterina Ieronimo is a junior government and politics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.