This is how a pandemic ends: With a quick COVID-19 booster at a Kansas pharmacy

October 25, 2023 3:33 am

A mask is seen on the ground at John F. Kennedy Airport on April 19, 2022 in New York City. We’ve come to see COVID-19 in the rearview window, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Here’s how the COVID-19 pandemic ends: With this opinion editor walking into a grocery store pharmacy and receiving his booster shot within 10 minutes.

A little more than three years after the pandemic paralyzed business and personal life across Kansas and the country, we appear to have found an uneasy peace with our viral foe. Multiple vaccines and treatments now prevent COVID’s worst effects. Many millions have had their own bouts with the illness and developed a degree of natural immunity. We mourn those lost, but as a society we appear eager to get on with things.

Those who joined me at the pharmacy yesterday have come to see COVID as a part of life, albeit an inconvenient one. None of us wore masks (one of the pharmacy technicians did), but we wanted to boost our immune defenses for the winter months.

As Dana Hawkinson of the University of Kansas Health System put it last week on the “Open Mics With Doctor Stites” webcast: “This has really become a disease of those most at risk: elderly, immune compromised, comorbid conditions. And that’s why it’s vitally important to have a plan. No. 1, get that updated vaccine.”

It gets even better. Peter Chin-Hong of the University of California, San Francisco, told ABC News that boosters might bestow “a bonus effect, which is prevention of infection. Some people may think of it as protection for the holiday period, or before taking that big trip.”

That was that.

To a vociferous few, however, the pandemic definitely hasn’t ended. You can still read alarmist Twitter threads from supposed medical experts claiming a renewed plague will hobble society as we know it. You can still listen to extremist politicians and their acolytes denouncing vaccines, as if they weren’t one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

I will admit to scanning the headlines every month or two, curious to see if what new variants might emerge. Partly that stems from my own morbid curiosity, partly from my work as a journalist.

Yet I find the lingering online debates exhausting, because those who continue to be terrified of COVID and those who continue to be terrified of vaccines both fall victim to the same mathematical error.

It’s called the base rate fallacy, and while there are more complicated explanations, let me describe it to you simply.

A lot of people in the United States have been infected with COVID-19. Estimates from the end of last year put it at 77.5% — roughly 259 million Americans. Similarly, a lot of people have been vaccinated. About 70% of Americans — roughly 234 million people — have been vaccinated. Those are big numbers. Gigantic numbers. Brobdingnagian numbers.

That means that any report purportedly revealing astonishing truths about people who have had COVID or been vaccinated should be treated with extreme caution. Do you believe a case of COVID caused other health problems? It might have, but so many people have had the disease at this point that any one person’s experience has to contend with hundreds of millions of others. Researchers have to do the difficult work of digging through statistics and case studies.

Any report purportedly revealing astonishing truths about people who have had COVID or been vaccinated should be treated with extreme caution.

– Clay Wirestone

Likewise, if you believe the vaccine causes people to keel over unexpectedly, you have to vie with the fact that hundreds of millions of people have been vaccinated. Any number of them would have keeled over unexpectedly anyway.

Disregard this advice, and you could claim that having COVID-19 leads to winning the lottery.

You could claim that getting vaccinated means you’ll be run over by an SUV.

You could claim that getting both COVID and the vaccine will make you pregnant with triplets.

There’s no association between these supposed causes and outcomes. Trust me. But I assume they’ve happened at some point to some people out there in the wide world. They just don’t mean anything (unless that lottery one works out).

Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control for the KU Health System, summed it up last week: “If you can find the vaccines out there, please get vaccinated, especially against these seasonal respiratory viruses, influenza, RSV and COVID-19. It will help reduce the severity of disease and reduce your chance of going to the hospital.”

The pandemic stole lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,148,691 Americans have died. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, more than 10,000 Kansans have died. Anyone who wants to diminish the severity of what we went through as a state and nation should take a long look at those numbers, sit down and spend some time thinking about their life choices.

Take care of yourself and your family this winter. If you qualify for a COVID-19 booster shot, go in for the safe and effective jab. Add in a couple of other vaccines while you’re at it. Stay safe and healthy, and let’s keep that pandemic in the past tense.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.