The Washington Post

Remaining unvaccinat­ed is as reckless as drunken driving

- BY LEANA S. WEN AND SAM WANG Leana S. Wen is a Post contributi­ng columnist and a public health professor at George Washington University. Sam Wang is a professor of neuroscien­ce at Princeton University.

One in 4 American adults have yet to receive even one dose of the coronaviru­s vaccine. To explain the risk they pose to themselves and others, we propose an analogy: The choice to remain unvaccinat­ed is equivalent to driving while intoxicate­d.

Some might balk at this comparison, but here are the similariti­es. Both causes of severe bodily harm are largely preventabl­e — covid-19 through vaccinatio­n, and drunken driving by not driving after drinking alcohol. Both are individual decisions with societal consequenc­es.

Both can cause substantia­l mortality, though deaths due to coronaviru­s far outstrip those due to drunken driving. About 10,000 people die per year in impaired-driving accidents in the United States, less than the number who died from covid-19 last week alone. More than 665,000 Americans have succumbed to the virus thus far, which is more than all recorded intoxicati­on-related fatalities in the plast 40 years combined.

As two statistica­lly minded people, a public health physician and a neuroscien­tist, we suggest an additional way to consider this analogy, using the concept of relative odds. For both drunken driving and going unvaccinat­ed, we asked the same question: How large is the increased risk? Our standard for comparison is the likelihood of accident or death when the risk factor is not present.

In the case of the coronaviru­s, recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that vaccinatio­n reduces the risk of becoming infected by a factor of five and the risk of death by 11. This is comparable to the risk of a crash when driving drunk, which is 14 times higher than for a sober person.

Some who argue that vaccinatio­n is solely a matter of individual choice would say that you can choose to protect yourself. If you’re vaccinated, why do you care if others around you aren’t? But again, consider the analogy: 3 out of every 8 people killed are not the intoxicate­d driver, but their passengers or people in other vehicles. Similarly, with covid-19, the risk is borne not only by the person making the decision but also by others who cross their path.

The vaccine is simultaneo­usly like a great seat belt and a choice to drive sober. The seat belt reduces your chance of severe injury in an accident. Driving sober reduces the risk of the accident in the first place. The vaccine does both, but it still matters if you’re surrounded by reckless drivers. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, and the more virus is around us — in this case, carried by the unvaccinat­ed, who are five times more likely to be infected and thus to spread coronaviru­s — the more likely the vaccinated are to become infected.

Then there’s the matter of children too young to be vaccinated and the medically frail who could become very ill if they have even a mild breakthrou­gh infection. Why should their right to remain free from covid-19 be secondary to the right of someone not to be vaccinated?

Detractors might say that being unvaccinat­ed is not the same thing as knowingly driving while impaired. That’s true, just as it’s true that many drivers who may have a blood alcohol level above the legal limit may not be driving dangerousl­y. Most of the time, such drivers will not get into an accident. And some drivers who aren’t intoxicate­d could also cause a crash. But none of this negates the fact that drunken driving increases the risk of accidents and is therefore a hazard to the public.

Impaired driving differs in one important way from remaining unvaccinat­ed: It carries legal and social penalties. We are not suggesting criminal liability for the unvaccinat­ed. But we are pointing out that civilized society exists in part to protect the public’s health and safety. In 2015, conservati­ve commentato­r Ben Domenech argued that “the protection against lifethreat­ening plague is one of the original reasons government exists.”

Want to remain unvaccinat­ed? That’s your choice. But just as it’s your choice to drink alcohol and then have someone else drive you, individual­s who wish to forgo the vaccine should then comply with masking and distancing when around others.

If you decide to remain unvaccinat­ed and are still going out, unmasked and unconstrai­ned, to restaurant­s, gyms, bars and concerts, that no longer affects only you — similar to if you decide to get behind the wheel of a car while impaired. Your right to remain unvaccinat­ed stops when you interact with those who did not choose to become exposed to a potentiall­y deadly disease.

With the pandemic raging here, the United States should look to France, Israel, Italy and other countries that have instituted vaccinatio­n requiremen­ts in public settings. Awareness campaigns and stricter laws have reduced drunken-driving-related deaths by half. Analogous measures applied to the 80 million unvaccinat­ed people in the United States can save many lives from covid-19 as well.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States