Here’s how the Covid-19 conversation is changing in the media

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

It’s happening from Fox to CNN, from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times. And it’s happening on two tracks simultaneously. Vaccinated America is learning how to live with mostly mild flare-ups of the Covid-19 virus. Unvaccinated America is grappling with the death and suffering that comes from rejecting the protection of the vaccines. And in places where the two Americas intersect — schools, shopping malls, cookouts, county fairs — it feels like two languages are being spoken without a trusted translator.

An unvaccinated minority that doesn’t watch the news or trust the news is putting the vaccinated majority at undue risk. There’s no way around that reality. Dr. Paul Offit brought it up over the weekend when he told CNN’s Jim Acosta that the “constant talk about boosters is missing the main point.”

“You have a 25 to 30-fold greater risk of being hospitalized or dying if you’re unvaccinated than vaccinated,” Offit said. “It’s the unvaccinated that’s spreading the virus in this country that’s infecting others. And that should be what we take on — and we should talk about it every minute of every hour of every day — because we are never going to get on top of this pandemic until we do that.”

Now here’s how the Covid conversation is changing in vaccinated America…

“What are we willing to accept?”

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta said on Tuesday that he spent the weekend talking with experts about the state of the pandemic, and “invariably, the conversation goes to this: Are we in this endemic phase? And many scientists believe we are probably there, in the sense that this virus is here to stay.” So, he said, the question becomes, “what are we willing to accept?” Annual deaths that are comparable to the flu? A higher total? Or a lower total? “We know it’s within our power to bring those numbers dramatically down with vaccines and masks and stuff like that,” he said. Yet right now, “less than half the country gets a flu shot every year.”

Fox’s Dr. Nicole Saphier made a similar point later in the day. Talking about Covid-19 becoming endemic, she said “it’s possible Covid-19 may be the next flu, where we’re going to just be living with this.” But, she added, we need to maximize vaccinations and manage risks so that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

I was struck by something Saphier tweeted on Labor Day: “The best path forward that will bring the most amount of happiness and health,” she said, “is if vaccinated adults stop overestimating their Covid risk and unvaccinated adults stop underestimating theirs.” Easy to say, obviously very hard to put into practice…

Surgeon General’s definition of “success”

Insider published a striking headline earlier this week: “The US Surgeon General says we’re thinking about the end of the pandemic in the wrong way.”

The site was picking up on something that Dr. Vivek Murthy said to Politico’s Joanne Kenen. Murthy said “it is really important that we convey that success does not equal no cases. Success looks like very few people in the hospital and very few dying.”

Some US states are close to that “success” point right now. Others are far, far from it. But to be frank, I have not seen any government-produced maps or charts that illustrate his definition of “success.” When I log onto the CDC website, I see a huge emphasis on “cases,” even though a Covid case in a healthy vaccinated adult has almost nothing in common with a Covid case in an unvaccinated adult. I see maps with red splotches and little-to-no nuance. I don’t see metrics for what Murthy is describing.

Notably, new Gallup polling finds that the CDC is once again underwater on communication: “Just 32% of people agreed that the CDC has communicated a clear plan of action in response to Covid-19,” while 41% disagreed, CNN’s Virginia Langmaid reported Tuesday.

As for Biden, “Gallup says 40% agree Biden has communicated a clear plan of action, and 42% disagree.” Biden is slated to deliver another speech about Covid on Thursday. Can he improve his numbers? Axios said it well in a headline last week: The United States “needs a Covid goal.” So can Biden articulate an endgame? Can he outline a goal? Maybe if David Leonhardt were writing the speech…

Leonhardt’s reality check

On Tuesday, multiple Biden White House aides amplified Leonhardt’s newest article for the NYT. Leonhardt, in his morning newsletter, reassured readers about the rarity of Covid infections among the vaxxed. “For the vaccinated, Covid resembles the flu and usually a mild one,” he wrote. “Society does not grind to a halt over the flu.” But “Covid anxiety” is at a much higher level, he added, “especially in communities that lean to the left politically.” That’s why NYT readers really need to absorb what he wrote: That “the Covid risks for most vaccinated people are of the same order of magnitude as risks that people unthinkingly accept every day, like riding in a vehicle.”

>> For what it’s worth, I agree with CNN’s John Harwood, who said Leonhardt “continues to excel at, as much as one person can, tempering the propensity of our business to hype.”

We adapt…

Five distinct times on Tuesday, I felt the lingering effects of the pandemic, more than six months after being vaccinated. First, I talked with my better half Jamie about how to teach our 2-year-old to wear a mask for school. Then I donned a mask in my apartment building lobby due to a reimposed mask mandate. At work I noticed some newly affixed “welcome home” signs in the CNN office lobby for employees who worked from home for eighteen months. Later, I walked to CVS with Jamie, who is eligible for a booster shot since she’s immunocompromised, and I scratched my head when they said Covid walk-in appointments were not available, but then offered to give me a flu shot right on the spot. That was weird. Then I walked into a restaurant with a sign that said I needed to display my Covid vaccine card. The 2019 version of me would have been aghast at all of that. At any of that. But we adapt…

We’re a long ways from this

Back in March, this Suitsupply ad stirred waves of news coverage, as intended, with a raunchy vision of the “new normal.” It was portrayed as a post-vax summer scene:

Suffice to say, the Delta variant and government screwups and other matters got in the way. But it’s worthwhile to think back to the hopeful strain of the springtime, before it became clear that, in the words of Frank Luntz, who has tried to help bridge the red-blue divide on vaccines, “our pandemic progress is going backward.”

It’s no wonder why there is so much anger. BuzzFeed’s Katherine Miller penned this new essay about summertime rage — “expectations keep getting subverted,” she wrote, “and anger keeps flowing into the void…”

Glass half full:

New CDC data on Tuesday showed that 75% of adults in the US have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Let’s shout that percentage from the rooftops! Three in four adults have done the right thing…

Glass half empty:

“I’m not sure how much it’s penetrated US news coverage that America is now thoroughly mediocre in its vaccination rate compared to most of Western Europe and Scandinavia,” Vox health care reporter Dylan Scott observed, showing the US far down a list of fully vaccinated populations…


— Regarding “endgame” talk, the answer is still vaccines, “but that message is getting lost, infectious disease and vaccine experts tell” Bob Herman… (Axios)

— Dr. Anthony Fauci’s refutation of a recent remark from Gov. Ron DeSantis: “When you have a virus that’s circulating in the community, and you are not vaccinated, you are part of the problem…” (CNN)

— Tuesday’s debut of “CBS Mornings” began with a bracing report by David Begnaud about overwhelmed hospitals in Texas. He quoted Dr. Hasan Kakli, who said “Covid is kicking humanity’s ass. And as a member, as a team player on Team Humanity, I take that personally…” (CBS)

— Moira McCarthy says “freedom, religion, mistrust” is “the recipe driving the Covid-19 surge in rural America…” (Healthline)

— Out West: “Urban California taming virus surge, but areas with low vaccination rates still in danger…” (LAT)

— Amanda Carpenter commented: “I’m so afraid to see what happens to the COVID numbers post-Labor Day weekend. All I want is the vaccine approved for my kids. I can’t stop thinking about this…” (Twitter)

This is an essential point

When a columnist or a TV news anchor makes a heartfelt comment about the importance of getting vaccinated, does any unvaccinated adult read it or see it or notice? I highly doubt it. The average news junkie was vaccinated months ago. The holdouts are not watching CNN or reading Reuters.

The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig is out with a piece titled “Stop Death Shaming” that reflects this point. She called up one of her uncles, who is still thinking about getting vaxxed, who says he’s concerned about the “long-term effects” of the vaccines. She asked about his media consumption, and he said, “I’ll be honest, I don’t watch a lot of the news, because stuff like that, you’re almost — you’re almost ashamed if you don’t have it.” Meaning, if you’re not vaccinated. “If you don’t get the vaccine, you’re killing people,” he said, paraphrasing the new coverage. “And so I don’t watch a lot of it.”

Bruenig’s takeaway is essential: “The articles about all the unvaccinated dead aren’t persuading him; they’re not even reaching him.”

>> Regarding the unvaccinated death, here’s a provocative point by Steve Schmidt: “Covid may be the medical cause of their death, but what they were killed by was misinformation. What they were killed by, was lies.” (MSNBC)

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