Irresponsible Headlines on Massachusetts Outbreak Mislead the Public and Cause Harm

Dr. Jeff Livingston

Only 4 vaccinated people were hospitalized with Covid-19

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Massachusetts State Interstate road sign.Photo: Gguy44 Istock/Getty Images.

Want people to click on your story? You need a killer headline. Clickbait works. But what if a clickbait headline misleads the public and potentially leads to more deaths around the world? 

Multiple news outlets covered a Massachusetts Covid-19 outbreak in vaccinated people as detailed in the July 30 CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

Many of the headlines from well-respected media sources are inflammatory and scary. They are also misleading and miss a crucial point that every reader needs to know. 

Here is the background. The CDC reported case data regarding a Covid outbreak in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. In July 2021, 469 people contracted Covid-19 linked to summer camps and large public gatherings.

Surging cases of the more contagious SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant are fueling the rise in infections.

Here are some of the headlines:

  1. CNBC: CDC study shows 74% of people infected in Massachusetts Covid outbreak were fully vaccinated
  2. Reuters: Most COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts outbreak among vaccinated, says CDC
  3. Salon: In a Massachusetts COVID outbreak, many of the infected were vaccinated: CDC study

The Washington Post used this headline on Twitter. 

The takeaway from these headlines gives the reader a false impression. Some may assume this CDC report indicates that Covid-19 vaccines do not work. Others may decide getting vaccinated is not worth it.

To understand the importance of this local Covid-19 outbreak, we need to read beyond the headline and do some very basic math. 

The CDC reported 469 Covid-19 infections. 74% of the cases occurred in vaccinated individuals (347 people). 

Only five people had to be hospitalized. Four of the five people hospitalized were vaccinated and two of those individuals had underlying medical conditions. 

This data shows that only 1.15% of fully vaccinated individuals infected during this outbreak needed to be hospitalized. Zero people died. 

ZERO deaths

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Massachusetts July 2021 OutbreakChart by Author
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Massachusetts July 2021 OutbreakChart by Author

The headlines failed to mention how effectively the vaccines prevented severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Hospital admissions rates of 1.1% and zero deaths demonstrate the importance of getting vaccinated against this deadly virus.

The misleading headlines imply a lack of vaccine efficacy. The headlines should have highlighted how vaccines saved lives in Massachusetts. 

The Massachusetts outbreak is eye-opening because it shows the US is moving into a new phase of the pandemic. The more contagious Delta variant is now the dominant Covid-19 strain in the US. In this outbreak, 89% of the infected people had the Delta variant.

The CDC reports 75% of current US cases are from the Delta variant, with models predicting this number to rise. This variant spreads more easily from one person to another.

The CDC highlights that the Delta variant is more transmissible than the viruses that cause MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, seasonal flu, and smallpox.

The two mRNA vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are over 90% effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalizations. The Massachusetts outbreak data supports these findings.

Updated CDC data shows lower rates of disease, hospitalization, and death in vaccinated people. 

The Massachusetts data also reminds us that fully vaccinated individuals may still catch Covid-19 and transmit the virus to others. The CDC highlights that “people fully vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna) are less likely than unvaccinated persons to acquire SARS-CoV-2 or to transmit it to others.”

As long as community vaccination rates remain low, the Delta variant will continue to spread. Unvaccinated people are at extremely high risk of Covid-19. Some will have mild symptoms, while others will develop severe disease, require hospitalization and end up in an ICU on a ventilator. Others will develop Long Covid

Some people will die. 

Vaccinated people are at lower risk for catching the Delta variant, but breakthrough infections will occur. The Massachuset’s data showed that vaccinated people with symptomatic breakthrough infections have a high viral load and can transmit the virus to others. 

The scientific understanding of Covid-19 is changing fast. New variants and rising rates in different communities mean that guidelines and recommendations will likely continue to evolve and change.

Journalists and science writers are responsible for reporting the data accurately to help readers access actionable, reliable, and validated medical information to help protect themselves and others.

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Dr. Jeff Livingston is nationally recognized thought leader, speaker, writer, blogger and practicing physician who is considered an expert in the use of social media to educate patients, using new and innovative technology to improve care outcomes and the patient experience. He is a prating Obgyn and serves as the CEO of MacArthur Medical Center. Dr. Jeff is the co-founder of the health website Medika.life and an active blogger on Medium.

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