The surprisingly good news about vaccines

What will the rest of 2021 look like? Will we ever be able to go to a crowded restaurant or bar this year? How long will we have to keep wearing masks? Will I be able to go back to work in March? In May? By Christmas?

Obviously, lots of people are already working in public-facing jobs and have been all along. But for those who were sent home and have been working remotely, these questions keep coming up. There’s no definitive answer yet, but the news about the several COVID vaccines is better than you might have been led to believe.

News coverage of the vaccines has largely focused on their effectiveness against COVID, with “effectiveness” being defined rather strictly as preventing any infection, regardless of its severity. So the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was shown to be 95 percent effective, the Moderna vaccine is 94.5% effective, Novavax is 89% effective, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 66 percent effective. Looking at those numbers, you’d probably want one of them with efficacy percentages in the ninety-percent-plus range, right? But those vaccines are harder to store and administer and require two shots instead of one, so maybe the J&J vaccine is better?

Fortunately, it doesn’t look like you need to choose. It turns out that all of the available vaccines, while having different levels of efficacy against contracting COVID, have virtually eliminated the chance of dying from COVID. David Leonhardt wrote about this on Monday in the New York Times.

[A]ll five of the vaccines — from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson — look extremely good. Of the roughly 75,000 people who have received one of the five in a research trial, not a single person has died from Covid, and only a few people appear to have been hospitalized. None have remained hospitalized 28 days after receiving a shot.

To put that in perspective, it helps to think about what Covid has done so far to a representative group of 75,000 American adults: It has killed roughly 150 of them and sent several hundred more to the hospital. The vaccines reduce those numbers to zero and nearly zero, based on the research trials.

Zero isn’t even the most relevant benchmark. A typical U.S. flu season kills between five and 15 out of every 75,000 adults and hospitalizes more than 100 of them.

I assume you would agree that any vaccine that transforms Covid into something much milder than a typical flu deserves to be called effective. But that is not the scientific definition. When you read that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 66 percent effective or that the Novavax vaccine was 89 percent effective, those numbers are referring to the prevention of all illness. They count mild symptoms as a failure.

The goal was never to eradicate COVID, but to bring it down to a manageable level where it becomes no more than a seasonal irritant similar to influenza. COVID – and other coronavirus-related illnesses – will continue to be with us, and it seems likely that we will need to get an annual “COVID shot” along with, or perhaps as part of, our flu shot. Perhaps COVID will help to improve the percentage of Americans who actually bother to get such a shot; historically, only about half of us get one each year.

If the vaccines are virtually eliminating the chance of dying from COVID (I keep saying “virtually” because, despite these statistics, there are always exceptions), we can potentially return to what was normal before last winter. In many ways, we’ll never return completely to that normal, however. Some of us may continue to work from home, because our employers have discovered that we’re as efficient (if not more so) working from home. Other people have lost their jobs, in many cases because the business they used to work for is no more, and will have to find new employment or even consider retraining for a different career. And there’s the lasting political division we’re experiencing, which was made more acute by the parallel division over lockdowns, social distancing, and masks.

COVID will leave a lasting stamp on the world. But at least there’s a legitimate reason to have some optimism about the rest of 2021 and beyond.