Perspective is everything. Sometimes when something goes a little wrong, it highlights how right it usually goes. The news has reported on COVID-19 vaccine side effects because it is newsworthy. Like a lot of “hot” news topics, all the attention makes it sound much more common than it is. When we are talking about these extremely rare side effects, like 1 in a million, consider these other risks for context.
|Risk of being hit by lightning||2 per million per year|
|Risk of dying in a car crash||1 per 3 million per day|
|Risk of being attacked and killed by a shark||1 in 3.7 million, lifetime risk|
|Death from COVID, Age 18-29, so far||40 per million population (not just cases!)|
Are the estimated COVID deaths accurate? The simplest proof is to look at the excess deaths – the number of deaths more than what was expected. One thing the government is really, really good at is counting dead bodies. The number of deaths in the US changes very little from year to year. Health care improves, but more people move in than move out. Recent years had seen about 2.85 million deaths per year. 2019 had just 17,000 more deaths than 2018. In 2020, the number of deaths increased by as much as the prior 20 years combined. The weekly death counts have run substantially higher than expected virtually every week since April 2020.The death rate in 2020 was over 10 per 1,000 population. I have seen data going back to 1949 and the highest previous rate was 9.5 – in 1949. The large increase in deaths was in every age group from 15 and up – in each group deaths went up 15%-25% over 2019. The plain fact is that the people dying from COVID weren’t all sick and ready to die. About 2/3 of the elderly have high blood pressure and 1 in 4 have diabetes. And yet the life expectancy for a 72 year old is still 13 years. Having high blood pressure or diabetes doesn’t put you at death’s door with COVID just giving the tiniest last push through. We’ve had more than twice as many people under age 65 die from COVID than die from flu at any age in a typical year.
But there are two main reasons to vaccinate besides protecting yourself. One, it’s how we can get back to normal. Two, the more the virus circulates, the more chance it has to mutate into a form that can evade immunity from prior infection or vaccination – which would put as back to square one. Personally, I’d like to avoid “COVID-19: The Sequel”. If you think COVID is serious, then you don’t want it to start over again. And if you think it is really about the liberals controlling the population, just imagine what it would be like if a new mutation put us back at the beginning. So whatever you think, vaccinating is important and these extremely rare side-effects that get so much attention really only prove how safe these vaccines are. And after 200 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in the US, there has been very little news. Maybe this isn’t such a time of hester panim after all!
Mendel E. Singer, PhD MPH
Associate Professor and Vice Chair for Education
Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences
Case Western Reserve University