The Morning: Irrational Covid fears

Do you have fears, perhaps irrational, about COVID-19? Read this wonderful article by David Leonhardt from The New York Times to gain a better understanding of our future with COVID.

 

Author HeadshotBy David Leonhardt

Good morning. Why do so many vaccinated people remain irrationally fearful? Listen to the professor’s story.

Traffic on the 101 freeway in Los Angeles. Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A fable for our times

Guido Calabresi, a federal judge and Yale law professor, invented a little fable that he has been telling law students for more than three decades.

He tells the students to imagine a god coming forth to offer society a wondrous invention that would improve everyday life in almost every way. It would allow people to spend more time with friends and family, see new places and do jobs they otherwise could not do. But it would also come with a high cost. In exchange for bestowing this invention on society, the god would choose 1,000 young men and women and strike them dead.

Calabresi then asks: Would you take the deal? Almost invariably, the students say no. The professor then delivers the fable’s lesson: “What’s the difference between this and the automobile?”

In truth, automobiles kill many more than 1,000 young Americans each year; the total U.S. death toll hovers at about 40,000 annually. We accept this toll, almost unthinkingly, because vehicle crashes have always been part of our lives. We can’t fathom a world without them.

It’s a classic example of human irrationality about risk. We often underestimate large, chronic dangers, like car crashes or chemical pollution, and fixate on tiny but salient risks, like plane crashes or shark attacks.

One way for a risk to become salient is for it to be new. That’s a core idea behind Calabresi’s fable. He asks students to consider whether they would accept the cost of vehicle travel if it did not already exist. That they say no underscores the very different ways we treat new risks and enduring ones.

I have been thinking about the fable recently because of Covid-19. Covid certainly presents a salient risk: It’s a global pandemic that has upended daily life for more than a year. It has changed how we live, where we work, even what we wear on our faces. Covid feels ubiquitous.

Fortunately, it is also curable. The vaccines have nearly eliminated death, hospitalization and other serious Covid illness among people who have received shots. The vaccines have also radically reduced the chances that people contract even a mild version of Covid or can pass it on to others.

Yet many vaccinated people continue to obsess over the risks from Covid — because they are so new and salient.

Visitors riding the swings at Adventureland, in Farmingdale, N.Y., Johnny Milano for The New York Times

‘Psychologically hard’

To take just one example, major media outlets trumpeted new government data last week showing that 5,800 fully vaccinated Americans had contracted Covid. That may sound like a big number, but it indicates that a vaccinated person’s chances of getting Covid are about one in 11,000. The chances of a getting a version any worse than a common cold are even more remote.

But they are not zero. And they will not be zero anytime in the foreseeable future. Victory over Covid will not involve its elimination. Victory will instead mean turning it into the sort of danger that plane crashes or shark attacks present — too small to be worth reordering our lives.

That is what the vaccines do. If you’re vaccinated, Covid presents a minuscule risk to you, and you present a minuscule Covid risk to anyone else. A car trip is a bigger threat, to you and others. About 100 Americans are likely to die in car crashes today. The new federal data suggests that either zero or one vaccinated person will die today from Covid.

It’s true that experts believe vaccinated people should still sometimes wear a mask, partly because it’s a modest inconvenience that further reduces a tiny risk — and mostly because it contributes to a culture of mask wearing. It is the decent thing to do when most people still aren’t vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated, a mask is more of a symbol of solidarity than anything else.

Coming to grips with the comforting realities of post-vaccination life is going to take some time for most of us. It’s only natural that so many vaccinated people continue to harbor irrational fears. Yet slowly recognizing that irrationality will be a vital part of overcoming Covid.

“We’re not going to get to a place of zero risk,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, told me during a virtual Times event last week. “I don’t think that’s the right metric for feeling like things are normal.”

After Nuzzo made that point, Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown University told us about his own struggle to return to normal. He has been fully vaccinated for almost two months, he said, and only recently decided to meet a vaccinated friend for a drink, unmasked. “It was hard — psychologically hard — for me,” Jha said.

“There are going to be some challenges to re-acclimating and re-entering,” he added. “But we’ve got to do it.”

And how did it feel in the end, I asked, to get together with his friend?

“It was awesome,” Jha said.

2 Comments

Victoria Bestock

I would like to believe my fears are irrational but your statistics are different from the ones I’ve heard. Two doctors told me that if I get Covid, I’m dead. That’s due to my already damaged lungs (1/4 the volume they had a few years ago) and poor immune system, blood oxygen below 90, heart only working due to a recently installed pacemaker. After my second shot which was “within guidelines” I read that I’m only 85% protected because the second shot was- too close to the first.. I read that people with poor immune systems like mine should continue to wear masks and keep distance since they are still vulnerable. Do I want to have gatherings indoors? Go to a dance or theater when I’m told I’m only 85% protected with the shots and will be dead if I get the virus? Are my fears irrational? I ‘ve asked my lung doctor and my family doctor how to behave now that I’m vaccinated and they say “It’s up to you how much of a risk-taker you are.” implying I’m still at more risk than most people. I’m moving out into the world slowly, not jumping back into group indoor activity. I’ve hugged my vaccinated daughter without a mask on, and will hug my son in two weeks after his second shot. I am less terrified when encountering unmasked, unvaccinated people, but continue to be cautious because I feel, maybe irrationally, that I can’t afford to get this virus.

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Figs & Honey Catering

Victoria, this post was written by the New York Times. I did not write it, did not research the information so I can not prove or disprove the validity of the information. However, I thought the article very well presented. Each individual must make his or her own decision about getting the vaccine. Certainly your doctor knows you and your health issues well and you should listen to his advice.

I was happy to see the press being positive about our future. Americans have been blasted by the negative press up this point. Folks have been scared to leave their house, scared to return to work, scared to get the vaccine. In my opinion (and it is just that – my opinion) the vaccine is worth the risk. I take my life in my hands every time I get behind the wheel of my car or get in a plane, but I don’t let my fears keep me from driving or flying. I have had my two vaccines. My only reaction was a slight soreness in my arm. I little soreness was well-worth my peace of mind about seeing my family members and going back to work.

I think you are being socially responsible. You are being cautious in all encounters – with those vaccinated and those who are not. I would hope, that if you do get COVID, that your symptoms would be “cold-like” and not severe because you did get the two shots! I commend you for getting the vaccines. I think all of us will feel more comfortable when everyone has had their vaccine.

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