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Our View: Vaccine-data consumers

Powerhouse’s Facebook shutdown raises question: Who do you trust?

It took about a week for Powerhouse Science Center’s Facebook page to be up and running again after Facebook suspended it on Feb. 17, hours before a final presentation on COVID-19, vaccines, pediatric health and misinformation. Powerhouse Executive Director Jeff Susor said Facebook would only say the nonprofit was reported for “violating community standards.” This means spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

Powerhouse offers a lot of programs and the world is normally pretty quiet, Susor said. But the announced presentation got the attention of a small, vocal minority that filled Susor’s inbox with a large handful of pointed emails, accusing him and his staff members of not understanding science and jeopardizing children’s health.

The running theme was that Powerhouse only paid attention to the science it liked and, according to Susor, “cherry-picking the science that reinforces the government’s narrative on COVID-19 and children.”

At first, Susor responded to the emails. When he read “12,122 deaths” from COVID-19 vaccines, he knew this information was likely from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, which accepts reports of reactions that occur after vaccinations. VAERS is a public data-reporting system designed to rapidly detect unusual or unexpected patterns, also called safety signals. It’s a voluntary reporting system, subject to biases. This creates limitations on how the data can be used scientifically. A sore arm, for example, could be considered an adverse reaction, instead of just a response. Take it for what it is. Reports of spiked fevers or loss of a sense of smell or fur growing on the bottoms of feet. It’s just information.

The website even says, “VAERS reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness.” Still, the doubt and suspicion.

In pulling singular data out of context, information is distorted. Something gets lost. In this case, it’s the distinction between a vaccinated person who died and a death caused by vaccination. Consider, for example, residents in a senior-care facility who are vaccinated, then die of something unrelated to COVID-19. Or, a different analogy, a terrible pileup on the highway and everyone in the crash wore seat belts. And socks. The seat belts didn’t cause the accidents. Nor did the socks.

It comes down to, who do you trust?

No matter whether we’re crunching vaccine data or buying a car or watching the evening news, we are all consumers.

Why not be a discriminating, discerning consumer of data?

After review, Facebook didn’t find anything out of line at Powerhouse. Science is on its side. Americans who have received a COVID-19 booster shot are 97 times less likely to die from the coronavirus than those who aren’t vaccinated, according to an update in February from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The irony is that in their quest to be heard, an anti-vaccine group intentionally silenced others who want to know more about vaccines.

Powerhouse’s social-media shutdown was a nuisance. But Susor has even more resolve.

“The biggest thing is to not shy away from controversy,” he said. “A lot of people have genuine questions.”

Data reports alone have limitations. Safety signals require further studies. We’ve seen vaccine hesitancy in rural communities and a pronounced lack of confidence in the efficacy of the shots. Citizens taking action to censor other community members and public-health experts won’t forward the conversation.