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21 June: Vaccines and Behaviors

By late July of last year, we were in uncharted territory. It became clear that the pandemic would drag on longer that most of us anticipated. The masking of American society was just beginning in earnest, but the best masks could do was slow the spread of the virus. When Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson all announced that they had developed vaccines, reactions were a mix of cynicism, optimism, and skepticism. I was skeptical because a developed vaccine didn’t necessarily mean having a market ready vaccine.

What did I think would happen? The unique technologies and techniques used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (mRNA carries instructions for creating an immune response) had never been used for treating a rapidly evolving virus. Because of this newness, the reality of immunizing the nation against COVID-19 was still unknown; maybe the vaccine would work, or maybe it wouldn’t. Pfizer’s vaccine and it’s testing process were outliers in vaccine distribution, and as we know, outliers tend to skew data, making it almost impossible to know for certain how building immunity would go.

What happened? It turned out that the Pfizer vaccine (and Moderna and J&J, which structured their vaccines the same) was wildly effective with about a 95% immunization rate. Because of that, the FDA moved at “warp speed” to approve vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson. Vaccines rolled out slowly in December and January and then picked up steam as winter turned to spring. Today you can walk into any pharmacy and get a vaccine. That’s very different from Europe. My niece, who is 24 and lives in England, will get her first shot this week, and won’t be fully immune for another month.

While composing this post, I looked at my Google COVID tracker for my home state of Utah. Hospitalizations remain low, but so do overall vaccination rates. We are almost 6 months into the vaccine campaign and supplies of vaccine are plentiful, but fewer than half of all Utahns have received their first dose, and just over a third can be considered fully vaccinated and immune. The large number of children in Utah helps explain some of that low rate, but the vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-rebellious also contribute. The seven-day average of new COVID cases is on the rise.

I get vaccine hesitancy. These drugs came on the market at “warp speed” and many thoughtful people waited on the sidelines to make sure the vaccine worked. All the data I read suggests that the vaccines are highly effective, and economic activity returns to normal when private individuals feel safe to shop and be active. The anti-vaxxers represent another challenge, and we may never see vaccination rates get above 70%. Nothing will change minds in this case.

So What? What’s the bottom line? Two things continue to stand out. First, the early recognition by some policy makers and business leaders that economic recovery would be linked to public health progress has proven true in this case. Second, we can see that solving this problem, and most others, depends more on social behavior than scientific breakthroughs. Remember that policy has little sway against most normalized social behaviors, and as such, businesses can’t forget to look at societal behaviors when making decisions.

Pfizer Efficacy Data

Utah Vaccine Data

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