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How do you play the odds?
The NCAA basketball tournament just ended. The odds of filling out a “perfect” bracket were 1 in 9.2 quintillion.
Drawing a royal flush in poker is 1 in 649,740.
And this week saw a national “pause” in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine due to reports of six blood clots. Out of 7 million administered doses. If this data is correct, then there is less than a one-in-a-million chance that any particular person might get a clot following the vaccine.
Many health professionals quickly counseled caution in response to the news to not scare people away from the vaccine. And they are right. The odds of a blood clot are .0001 percent on that math. The odds that a man will get breast cancer during his lifetime are 0.1 percent.
Of course, we know a lot more about COVID mortality than we did a year ago at this time, when statistics were being carelessly quoted and creating fear. For example, we know the odds of a 25 year old American male dying of COVID are about 0.01 percent
There are a few ways we can interpret this data. You could say that Mr. 25 is 100-times more likely to die from COVID than develop a blood clot from the J&J vaccine. True enough.
But you could also say that the mortality risk posed to him by COVID is miniscule. That’s true, too.
In fact, the odds of an American dying in any given year in a vehicle accident are 1 in 8,303. Or 0.01 percent, about the same risk as COVID for our young friend.
When we are dealing with these remarkably small numbers, it is hard to wrap our minds around them. That is particularly true when our emotions come into play, most notably fear.
As the Johnson & Johnson news came out, people began to express concern about the vaccine. Blood clots are scary. The vaccine remains an enigma to many of us, permitted solely under the “Emergency Use Authorization” of the Food and Drug Administration.
It is meant to combat a virus that is similarly unknown. From its genesis in Wuhan, China, to its mutation into numerous new variants around the world, it is an unseen enemy. And the unknown is frightening.
Looking at the statistics, that 25 year old getting in his car every day poses the same danger as COVID. Hopefully, he is going to do the things that mitigate the risk he is taking, like using his seatbelt. Good idea, right?
What if I told you seatbelts, in certain scenarios, can increase the likelihood of death in a vehicle accident? Still a good idea?
Of course they are.
Risk is reality. It cannot be eliminated; it can be mitigated. But even if you do everything right, bad luck can still happen.
That’s the story of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the coronavirus. It is highly, highly unlikely that young people will have serious health consequences from an infection. But there is even less likelihood of adverse consequences from taking the one-dose vaccine.
It is the same with vehicle deaths; statistics show that the risk of dying in an auto accident is remarkably low. Seatbelt usage keeps it that way, even if sometimes bad luck strikes and they do more harm than good.
Gov. Janet Mills issued her 14th consecutive emergency proclamation related to the coronavirus this week. We’re reaching the end of this pandemic.
Do some of the vaccines have risk? Sure.
Is it outweighed by the reward of returning to full-time schools, a vibrant, open economy, and the opportunity to enjoy the treasure that is Maine in the summer? Without a doubt.
Odds are we’ll get there.