The Boston Globe’s Failure to Adequately Edit Ashish Jha’s COVID Op-Ed

Recently, former White House COVID czar had an op-ed in the Boston Globe, which is par for the course for Jha (and most other public officials): lots of imprecise talk about how things will be mostly fine for most people. About long COVID, Jha writes (boldface mine):

What about long COVID? The evidence here is reassuring as well. Those who are up to date on their vaccines are far less likely to get long COVID, and when they do, it tends to be shorter-lived and less severe. And treatments may help reduce it too. For now, there is no foolproof way of avoiding long COVID short of avoiding infections altogether. But you can substantially reduce your risk with vaccines and, likely, treatments.

While Jha has backhandedly admitted that the frequency of long COVID in the vaccinated† is around one to two percent, in this piece, he is very vague. That is expected behavior unfortunately, but where were the Boston Globe editors? There is a huge difference between one in five thousand vaccinated people getting long COVID versus one in fifty, both from a population perspective and an individual risk perspective*. Yet Jha is allowed to get away with all of the wiggle words I highlighted above.

Where were the editors? They failed to ask Jha what “far less likely” means, both in relative and, more importantly, in absolute terms. I realize asking non-scientists to understand the particulars of complex biology is difficult, but this is just basic numerical literacy: when a (former) political official gives you an estimate, get some hard numbers.

There are multiple issues with this op-ed, but the basic numerical illiteracy is just astonishing: most policy discussion have to at least pretend there are some hard and fast numbers underlying their recommendations.

Until editorial boards get smarter about this, we’re just going to making the same mistakes over and over again.

Of course, if you received your fifth dose over a year ago, like I did, who knows how much protection against long COVID one has at this point. Hope is not a plan.

*I’m fortunate to not be immunocompromised, so personally I wouldn’t worry about a one-in-five-thousand chance of long COVID (because I don’t worry about ‘long influenza’ either**), but one-in-fifty is absolutely a non-trivial chance for a debilitating illness.

**Though I obviously don’t go out of my way to contract influeza!

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