Why Should the Vaccinated Care That the Unvaccinated Are Unvaccinated?

by Raywat Deonandan

Feb 15, 2022

This article was published in The Ottawa Citizen on Feb 15, 2022. It is based on a longer blog post from Feb 13, 2022.

As I write this, my home of Ottawa is under siege by a fraction of the population who believes their rights are being infringed upon by the rules around mandatory vaccination for some professions or some activities.

Many of the protestors are unvaccinated and are directly affected by these rules. But many are vaccinated and support the “right to choose.” Protestors argue that it should not matter to the vaccinated whether or not others choose to accept vaccination.

Theirs is a flawed argument.

Before I explain why, it’s important to note that the Omicron variant has compromised the ability of 2 doses of COVID vaccine to prevent actual infection and transmission, but retains awesome power to keep us out of the hospital and morgue. Three doses restore much of the jab’s ability to prevent infection, as well.

So here are five reasons that vaccinated people want the unvaccinated to get the jab.

1) The more people who become vaccinated, the more community immunity we have. With Omicron so hyper-contagious, it is unlikely that we can reach true herd immunity. But every person who accepts full vaccination is a bulwark against transmission penetrating into the community. That greater transmission means that our vulnerable loved ones, like children under five or the vaccinated elderly who remain at higher risk of death, remain at unnecessarily high levels of vulnerability.

2) More penetration into the community means more breakthrough infections for the vaccinated. While vaccines offer great protection against hospitalization and death, that protection is not absolute. So, every time the risk of breakthrough infection is raised, the risk of a vaccinated person becoming hospitalized or dying is also raised.

3) The unvaccinated are “dry tinder” for the runaway fire that is COVID-19. In some age groups, the relative risk of dying from not being vaccinated is greater than the risk of getting lung cancer from smoking. According to the Ontario Science Table, the unvaccinated have 6 times the risk of being hospitalized than do the vaccinated, and over ten times the risk of ending up in the ICU. Therefore, the unvaccinated are proportionately more likely to eat up precious health care capacity that the rest of us need for non-COVID emergencies.

4) Some studies have found that the unvaccinated pose a higher infection risk directly to the vaccinated. As the authors of one pre-print study concluded, “while risk associated with avoiding vaccination during a virulent pandemic accrues chiefly to the unvaccinated, the choices of these individuals are likely to impact the health and safety of vaccinated individuals.” In fact, the authors computed that the unvaccinated raise the risk of infection for the vaccinated by a factor of over six, beyond, of course, the risk that they themselves pose to other unvaccinated people.

Those who wish to frame this debate as one around personal choice are not incorrect to do so, in the broadest sense. But they are wrong to suggest that the actions of those who choose not to vaccinate do not affect the rest of us. Quite the contrary.