Why the NY Times Vaccine Timeline is Bad

Why the NY Times Vaccine Timeline is Bad

I have three qualms with the Interactive Timeline titled "Find Your Place in the Vaccine Line."

  1. It's factually misleading. The C.D.C has only voted on Tier 1a as of today (2020-12-4). The prose below the graphic includes this information, but telling people "this is where you are in line" and then qualifying it with "The final order is not yet determined and depends on successful vaccines being adequately tested for every group" is misleading, at best.

The author also didn't bother to build even mildly realistic parameters for the interactive. I entered that I was a two year-old health care worker from Hennepin County with COVID-related risks and it just spit out a place in line.

  1. Creating a vaccine line which misrepresents the risk/benefits of vaccination (see point 3) encourages line jumping by the privileged. Already some Republican legislators in MN have suggested they should jump the line over seniors with comorbidities. My family has a great-grandparent who is a 99 year-old World War 2 pilot and the idea that any legislator should get a vaccine that might allow a war hero to enjoy his 100th birthday is, well, go-to-hell Paul Gazelka.

  2. The vaccine line misrepresents the risk/benefit nature of vaccination. Everyone understands lines: we used to stand in them for things we wanted. Go to a candy store, stand in line, get your candy, eat it- the closer to the front, the better right? That's not how vaccination works.

For one, this vaccination campaign needs people to go the candy store twice, buy the exact same kind of candy exactly 21 to 28 days apart. Again, this detail is in the supporting prose below the interactive, but late qualifiers aren't much use once you've bated the hook.

More importantly, vaccination is more akin to everyone getting a big bag of candy while still standing in line, and getting to enjoy it as soon as the first person buys their candy. By the time it is your turn to buy your candy, you've already enjoyed a large portion of it.

  • When healthcare workers get vaccinated before me, they'll have a 90%+ chance of not getting ill from COVID, and will be ready to care for me should I get sick. Just by having available medical experts, my risk of dying goes down. Mmm, first jelly bean!

  • When at-risk populations get vaccinated, they have a 90%+ chance of not getting ill from COVID, which means more hospital and staff capacity, which opens up more medical resources should I need them. So tasty, this candy!

  • When essential workers get vaccinated, people who provide me things and services to me -- like mail, food, K-12 teachers, and city services -- have a 90%+ chance of not getting ill from COVID, ensuring our society can better operate. I can't get enough of this candy!

Given my low risk, it is better for me for others to get vaccines first, because it improves both my access to medical care and to goods and services I need. (Also, lots of people I and others love don't die:) The interactive timeline obfuscates all these benefits in the interest of faux ordinal placement.

And, as this thread makes clear vaccinations prevent illness, not necessarily infection. So, although vaccination will occur in an order, we all need to keep masking, washing, and social distancing until we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated. For us to return to normal, we all are safe only when we ALL are safe.

The Interactive Timeline discusses some of the complications of the vaccination role out, but not this central issue of how vaccines work to prevent illness, not necessarily infection. At the very least, if there's going to be an ordered list, it should be qualified with some rudimentary grounding in what the list claims to describe.

Journalism has a responsibility to present information in ways that inform our citizenry. Th NY Times Interactive Timeline "Find Your Place in the Vaccine Line" doesn't do that, and misrepresents what matters about vaccination all in the service of an interactive data visualization.