Gov. Phil Scott grabbed the headlines Tuesday with his pronouncement that only 5% of adult Vermonters are unvaccinated. It was a surprisingly small number, suggesting that the vax-averse are nothing but a tiny minority of cranks. It served to amplify Scott’s sterner-than-usual call for all eligible persons to get their shots. He rebuffed the notion of a mask mandate by saying the 95% who’ve done the right thing shouldn’t be hemmed in because of that small number of holdouts.
But what does it mean, really? A hell of a lot less than it appears. It was the latest in the Scott administration’s flood of misleading statistics. (I sometimes think his Selective Statistics Team is bigger than his Covid Policy Team.) And our news media deserves zero credit for regurgitating the number without a thought.
WCACX-TV went even further, helpfully exaggerating the number in its headline “Scott says 5% of unvaccinated Vermonters are ‘the problem.'” It’s not unvaccinated Vermonters, it’s unvaccinated adult Vermonters. (The accompanying story got that crucial detail right.)
Let’s explore the other limitations on this shiny new statistic, shall we?
In terms of fighting the pandemic, the usefulness of the vaxxed/unvaxxed percentage is as a measure of a population’s protection from Covid-19. Cutting out this group or that group or lots of groups in order to produce the smallest possible number isn’t a scientific process, it’s a political one. (That 95% figure also suggests that the administration’s vaccine push is far more successful than it really is, and that’s pure politics at its most venal.)
So who was excluded? Those under 18, obviously. There’s no good reason to exclude kids and teens except, again, if your goal is to get to a small number. Kids and teens get Covid and spread it to others.
One can make an argument for excluding those under 5 because they’re not eligible for vaccination. But young children are part of the population pool that the coronavirus splashes around in. Their unprotected status makes us just as unsafe as the alleged Five Percenters.
The biggest hole in the 5% calculation is that it only includes the completely unvaccinated. Those who received one dose are counted as vaccinated even though their protection is questionable at best. Also, as administration officials said Tuesday, the definition of “fully vaccinated” will soon include booster shots because only the boostered have the best protection from Covid. In no other place besides this calculation does the administration suggest that one shot is all you need.
If you look at the administration’s own Vaccine Dashboard, you’ll see the real relevant figure. It’s not 95% of adult Vermonters, it’s 84% of Vermonters age 5+. That number also includes those who’ve only received one dose. The Dashboard shows that 78% of Vermonters age 5+ have completed the initial course — two shots for Pfizer or Moderna, one shot for J&J. And only 50% have also received a booster. So if you want to count the truly vaccinated, the fully protected, that’s your percentage. Not 95%.
The administration might counter-argue that those who’ve gotten one dose have at least some protection. The truth of that statement would depend on how much protection a single shot actually offers. And its truth is limited by the exclusions of those 18 and under and those who can’t be vaccinated.
One other thing. If Scott wanted to deliver a well-targeted message, he could have cited county-by-county vaccination rates. By the standard measure — Vermonters aged 5+ who’ve gotten at least one jab — the county rates range from 90% (Chittenden and Lamoille) to 62% (Essex).
Essex is, in fact, the worst by a wide margin. It’s the only county below 75% (Orleans). If Scott wants to reach the unvaccinated, he ought to train his fire on the Northeast Kingdom.
As purely a messaging tool, this 5% thing could be effective if it makes the holdouts see themselves as a tiny, isolated group. But as a public health tool, the headline figure is nonsense.