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  • Writer's pictureIsaac Yoo

The Coronavirus and the Hare: Dangerous Misconceptions about COVID-19

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Today, it is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic is in essence, over. Firstly, life as we know seems to be exactly the same as it was before the pandemic in the United States. Everyone acts like it as well, and hospitalization rates are essentially negligible and are at an all time low. Secondly, over 81% of the population has gotten immunity to the coronavirus through the vaccine. Thirdly, it’s been more than three years, and at this point, I think it is time to accept that we defeated COVID-19 and we don’t need any more measures pushed on us.


Just one problem. Everything I just said is wrong and are dangerous misconceptions.


If you thought that the above paragraph talking about COVID-19 and the “endemic” was

true, I don’t blame you, and you are certainly not alone. In fact, I also believed that everything above

was, more or less, reality. Why? Because it just makes sense. So many people got vaccinated over the past three years. So many businesses, educational institutions, and just general aspects of life have seemingly returned back to normal. The very reasonable CDC even rolled back some of their guidelines, and the incredibly popular and “loved” mask wearing policy that all Americans rejoiced when first introduced is removed in many places.


Then why do I, you may ask, assert so strongly that this is dangerous? Incorrect? Wrong? Not

necessarily accurate? Sure. But dangerous? The very reason this is dangerous is because it is reasonable, or at least pretends to be. Sometimes, the most dangerous misconceptions are not those that are the most violent, the most obviously destructive, or the most blatantly hurtful. Those are easy to point out as wrong. But misconceptions that seem perfectly logical at a surface level are misconceptions that can shape a legacy and a generation. We as a community must see them as such, and it is important for us to evaluate these misconceptions pragmatically.


Now, let’s investigate then, why each sentence in the beginning of this article was indeed

incorrect and arguably dangerous.


The first general misconception today is the idea that hospitalization rates, and COVID-19 by proxy, is essentially negligible today. While this is not true, it is necessary to make some concessions to the general idea that COVID-19’s severity as a pandemic has waned if we are to view this pragmatically. Yes, in the broadest sense, the hospitalization rate for COVID-19, for more severe symptoms, has in general, decreased. This was largely due to vaccines and the adaptation of our healthcare system to better combat COVID-19. But if one considers the pandemic to be negligible, then one must consider these questions.


Was the COVID-19 pandemic and hospitalization negligible in September of 2020? A time when

we did not even have a single vaccine approved?


Obviously not. You would be surprised then, if I told you that the hospitalization rates of September 2020, a time with no vaccine, and September 2023, are relatively similar (Mathieu et al.). About 23,000 U.S. citizens were hospitalized weekly in September of 2020, compared to about 21,000 U.S. citizens hospitalized in September of 2023 (CDC).


You might also be surprised to know that our outlook for the winter season is not much better

than it was last year, and it should be noted that last year around this time, the COVID-19 Bivalent

Vaccine to reinforce the original protection and protect against Omicron variants was released. It has been a full year since that vaccine was approved. Despite this, recently, Director of the CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, Dr. George, predicted that “the bottom line here is we're likely to have a similar number of total hospitalizations as we had last year” (Firth).


Taken together, did the COVID-19 pandemic wane in severity? Yes, if one looks through the

broadest lens and makes our frame of comparison to the Delta Variant and Omicron Variant surge in the first winter months. But is it negligible? Well, the raw data and the CDC would disagree with that

interpretation. It is important for us to recognize the difference between viewing COVID-19 as

“weakened” and as “negligible.”


Secondly, another common misconception is that many people believe that herd immunity has kicked in, or rather, that such a large percentage of us are now vaccinated that we have all developed immunity to COVID-19. Unfortunately, as much as I would love to believe in this as well, this mindset makes two critical assumptions.


The first is the assumption that once we are vaccinated, we are home free. The second is the assumption that COVID-19 will sit tight, and stay the same. One of these assumptions might seem obviously faulty, but the other might be surprising. The second assumption is reinforced by the history of this pandemic itself and the news. COVID-19, in its relatively short history, has had more than 20 variants and some of them, such as the Delta Variant, caught the world by surprise with its vaccine immunity breakthroughs and its increased effectiveness even against fully vaccinated adults (“A Timeline of COVID-19 Variants”) (Mandavilli) (Katella). Even now, the CDC released an updated monovalent vaccine to combat the new variants, and we can expect this trend of combating new variants to continue (Regan et al.).


However, the first assumption might ring some alarm bells. What do I mean when I say that we

are in fact, not “home free” after taking the vaccine? Well, there are actually a plentiful amount of

research studies from many organizations, ranging from independent study groups to government

sponsored studies that actually showed a statistically significant decrease in vaccine protection overtime (Healy) (Wu et al.) (“Does Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness wane over time? Here’s what 2 new CDC studies show”) (Lin et al.). In other words, if you got the vaccine three years ago, you might not be as immune as you might think. This abating protection is also not helped by the mutations of COVID-19, taking up many different variants, with some being able to create breakthrough infections.


Going back to the claim in the beginning paragraphs, the one about 81% of the U.S. having

immunity, it sounds a lot less appealing when I now tell you that 81% of the U.S. got at least one dose of the vaccine, and a good ~20% of us did not bother finishing the first vaccine’s series to properly count (CDC). But the situation is not as grim as it may seem now. We are constantly working to innovate and account for the evolving state of COVID-19, and we have and are releasing new booster shots to combat potential breakthrough infections and waning protection. We largely have the tools to remain first place in the race and combat the virus.


Perfect! We now have the inventions and booster shots to combat COVID-19! Surely, with the

addition of the updated vaccines, the United States will see a greater immunity overall. Now, let me just check what percentage of us got the new vacc– Oh. Only17%? (CDC). By May of 2023, the most recent data from the CDC, only 17% of the U.S. population got the booster, marking a significant decrease in both the number of people who got the updated vaccine and inevitably, the number of people that carry the misconception that they have immunity.


So far, I tackled two components of the misconceptions. The first is that the COVID-19 pandemic

is now negligible, and the second was assuming we have achieved herd and individual immunity for the rest of our lives. But the pressing question one reading this article might be asking, is simply why? Why has only 17% of the United States received the booster (Sheikh)? You might postulate that the percentage of Americans receiving any subsequent shots will be even lower. Why? Well, the short answer is that we don’t want to, and this ties into my final point.


If the past two reasons were just thoughts about how that tree next to the pandemic finish line

looked comfortable, then these final reasons are the equivalent of taking a good, long look at the finish

line, then proceeding to use ear plugs and put on an eye mask attempting to go to sleep. In other words, this misconception is not only the root cause of many misconceptions about COVID-19, but is arguably more aggressive in its resistance and its denial. In order to understand this fully, the main attitudes must be analyzed.


The most common reason why we don’t want the booster shot from many surveys appears to be

the mindset that we simply do not need the booster shot. For example, one survey claimed that 44% of the survey respondents who are people that already got the COVID-19 vaccines said that they feel that they simply do not need it (Haslett). Now, you as the reader might feel that these responses are blasphemous, but it is not blasphemous at all when we consider the root cause. That cause is the disconnect between the general public, the scientific community, and governmental health agencies, and the gap in broad scientific literacy (Murez).


The second most common reason is perhaps scientifically more valid, yet is an impediment to

vaccine distribution. The idea that the side effects might be too great (University of Arizona). To be fair, I think that this is definitely a factor to consider, especially if an individual has had a great history of significant and detrimental side effects, and the judgment will differ per individual. But on the flipside, this element of cautiousness, in most cases, can be stretched to unreasonable lengths, and imprint too strongly on the general public to the point where they fear the vaccine more than the literal pandemic knocking on our doorstep.


The final reason is perhaps the reason that can have the longest lasting legacy, and this reason is

the fundamental concept that vaccines infringe on American freedom (Haslett). This rhetoric, the rhetoric that the government is taking the rights of individuals away, has become increasingly more common among the general population, especially after stringent vaccine mandates in the opening phases of the pandemic, and has led to a stream of radicalization and to an extent, conspiracies. Unfortunately, in this light, it does appear the vaccine not only gave more resistance against COVID-19, but also more resistance to the “virus” known as vaccination.


After all this talk of misconceptions, hospitalization rates, vaccines, and the shaping of American

public opinion, at the end of the day, where are we now? As the title suggests, we are simply sleeping before the finish line, just like the classic fable involving the tortoise and the hare. In the first few months and the first year, our response was quick and decisive. Vaccines were rolled out, we implemented measures to stop the rapid spread, and we came together not only as a country

but as a world with the purpose of putting an end to the rampant spread of COVID-19. Yes, COVID-19 was steadily mutating, but one could agree that when considering the rate of innovations, the actions of the public, and the hard work put in by our community towards the goal of ending the pandemic, we were definitely in a position where we could be seen as “outpacing” the disease.


Where are these attitudes today? Where is the spirit we once had? They've found themselves replaced by common misconceptions, held by so many Americans today. Let it be heard that the opinion of this writer believes that our process of normalization was not inherently a bad thing. We as a community are in a stance and position to afford to normalize, and recreate the lives we once had before the pandemic.


But, we as a community should continue to keep up with the news, keep up with the newest

recommendations, and, perhaps most importantly of all, keep up with science, research, and the

ever-changing field of medicine. Let’s not sleep on it, or the ever-changing virus, slowly and steadily, might win the race.


Isaac Yoo is a 1st Year student at the University of Virginia and an Executive Editor of the Virginia Medical Review. He is currently studying majors and interests in the fields of biomedical and biochemical sciences, translational medicine, and the interdisciplinary approach of bioinformatics and AI in healthcare.


References:


A Timeline of COVID-19 Variants. Verywell Health. August 31, 2023.


CDC. COVID Data Tracker. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_weeklyhospitaladmissions_weeklyhospitaladmi

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Firth, S. How Bad Will This Respiratory Virus Season Be? CDC Weighs In. MedPage Today.

October 4, 2023.


Haslett, C. New Poll Shows Why Some Adults Aren’t Getting the COVID Booster. ABC News.

December 17, 2022.


Healy, M. Study Shows Dramatic Decline in COVID Vaccine Effectiveness - Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles Times. November 9, 2021.


Katella, K. 5 Things To Know About the Delta Variant. Yale Medicine 2022.


Lin, D.; Gu, Y.; Wheeler, B.; Young, H.; Holloway, S. T.; Sunny, S.-K.; Moore, Z.; Zeng, D.

Effectiveness of Covid-19 Vaccines over a 9-Month Period in North Carolina. The New England

Journal of Medicine 2022, 386 (10), 933–941. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmoa2117128.


Mandavilli, A. Breakthrough Infections and the Delta Variant: What to Know. The New York

Times. October 18, 2021.


Mathieu, E.; Ritchie, H.; Rodés-Guirao, L.; Appel, C.; Giattino; Hasell, J.; Macdonald, B.;

Dattani, S.; Beltekian, D.; Ortiz-Ospina, E.; Roser, M. Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Our


Murez, C. Why So Many Americans Aren’t Getting COVID Boosters. Consumer Health News |


Regan, J. J.; Moulia, D.; Link‐Gelles, R.; Godfrey, M.; Mak, J.; Najdowski, M.; Rosenblum, H.

G.; Shah, M. M.; Twentyman, E.; Meyer, S.; Peacock, G.; Thornburg, N. J.; Havers, F.; Saydah,

S.; Brooks, O.; Talbot, H. K.; Lee, G. M.; Bell, B. P.; Mahon, B. E.; Daley, M. F.; Fleming-Dutra,

K. E.; Wallace, M. Use of Updated COVID-19 Vaccines 2023–2024 Formula for Persons Aged

≥6 Months: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — United

States, September 2023. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2023, 72 (42).


Sheikh, K. New Covid Vaccine: What to Know about the Monovalent Booster. The New York

Times. September 25, 2023.


Study uncovers reasons Americans did not get booster vaccines. University of Arizona Health

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