While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has lifted its recommended pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Ellen Peters, director of the University of Oregon’s Center for Science Communication Research, said that many continue to rally against the vaccine based on misconstrued ideas of the frequency of blood clots linked to the vaccine.
On April 13, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC released a joint statement regarding six cases of rare blood clots occurring in women aged 18-48 who received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a 75% efficiency rate against contracting COVID-19, and around 73% of unvaccinated Americans are saying that they don't trust the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on account of blood clots, according to an ABC News and Washington Post poll.
Of the eight million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses distributed, 15 cases of blood clots have been linked to the vaccine. While these blood clots occurred often enough for the FDA to issue a warning about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Peters told the Emerald there is still a minuscule numeric chance of experiencing them as a result of the doses.
Peters said that there are more risks in not getting vaccinated, adding that one of the documented side effects of COVID-19 is blood clots.
In terms of panic surrounding the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Peters emphasized that nothing is absolutely certain when weighing risk and benefits of medical treatment. However, she said that when people become emotional over an event, they start ignoring the numbers, which she believes was the case with the vaccine.
As of May 19, one woman with the rare type of clots has died, and .0001875% of Johnson & Johnson recipients have contracted them.
Peters suggested viewing the risk as eight million dots with 15 of them colored red, which she said would reflect the blood clot frequency associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
With a media studies mindset, Peters referred to this as a case of bad “framing.” Framing, as seen in the media, is when a thought or sensation is attached to information to present the information in a specific light. In the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she said it was framed as a dangerous vaccine despite the risk of these blood clots being numerically small.
Peters explained this concept using fractions; she said the public has been too fixated on the numerator, which are the documented cases of blood clots, while ignoring the denominator, the overall distributed amount of Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Peters said that the media could have done a better job of providing context for the numbers behind the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. By leaving out the denominator, she said, the media effectively represented half of the story with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Especially considering that context is helpful when presenting numbers: People could be too busy to do the math themselves or have weaker math ability. The effort of doing additional math to provide the extra context is a boundary some people don’t cross.
Peters also pointed to what she called the general public’s desensitized view of larger numbers and how that affects their perception of such numbers.
“It’s hard to map feelings onto numbers,” Peters says. “Especially larger numbers.”
When numbers are smaller, and more personal, we tend to sensationalize the results.
Another dilemma is that women on certain types of hormonal birth control are more likely to get blood clots over ten years than they are from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Peters explained that birth control doesn’t elicit the same reaction because the public is more familiar with it, whereas the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is novel and elicits emotional reactions. This directly connects to how people perceive risk in their minds: birth control is familiar and known, whereas the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — and the associated clots — were a surprise.
“This isn’t a logical reaction,” said Peters.
With the statistics surrounding blood clots associated with birth control, it should be eliciting stronger reactions.
If there is anything to take away from this, Peters thinks that people should take charge of their health by understanding the risks they choose.