Let’s Give “Breakthrough Infections” a Break

Check this out. A dollop of common sense here. Words are always important. We have sort of known all along that the specific words we choose to make a point can be our best friends or our worst enemies.  But the COVID-19 pandemic has given this concept new meaning. Think about the word “mandate.” As in “mask mandate” or “vaccine mandate.” In both phrases, the use of the word mandate is (has been made to be?) inflammatory, to put it mildly. Prior to the pandemic, the primary use that I recall of the term “mandate” was when a politician won an election by a large majority and declared that he had received a mandate from the electorate. In the good old days, a mandate was a good thing.

For those of you interested in getting a more erudite view of this topic, you might like to tap into this book. What you will see is a thoughtful review of how words can be crafted in such a way as to take advantage of such behavioral economics principles as biases and heuristics, and in turn can be used to influence desired healthcare attitudes and behaviors.

Now we focus on the point of the article referenced here. The use of the term “breakthrough infections” is unfortunately providing evidence for anti-vaxxers to use in making the point that the “vaccines don’t work.” Unfortunate since, as I have noted before, most people originally interpreted “90%” efficacy as “works for everybody,” responding to the behavioral economics principle of “rounding,” when in fact, it clearly means something very different. And then there are “little details” like the fact that most of the “breakthroughs” are milder cases, with very few hospitalizations or deaths. 

Bottom Line. Is it too late to undo the public health damage being done by these few words? Probably! As a wise teacher once taught me, “Until you say them, you are the master of your words. After you say them, they are the master of you.”

BUT. Hopefully going forward, we can avoid the setting of any more semantic traps which would likely contribute to even more lives being lost to the coronavirus.

AND. More generally, we hopefully will come to understand the emotional impact of words and how to work with them to society’s public health benefit rather than to its detriment.

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