Breakthrough cases bad for vaccine messaging

State reluctantly coughs up data on infections among those inoculated

REGULAR COMMUNICATION and sharing of data have been a key part of the Baker administration’s approach to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. For months, Gov. Charlie Baker gave a COVID briefing almost every day, an event that was live-streamed and often featured a rundown by the governor or his secretary of health and human services, Marylou Sudders, on where the state stood in terms of new infections, hospitalizations, and other metrics.

Early on, the briefings came with Baker repeating a plea for residents to observe social distancing guidelines, wear a mask, and regularly wash their hands. In recent months, the focus has turned to an all-out effort to promote vaccinations as the key to returning life in the state to some semblance of the normal that existed before the pandemic.

But not every nugget of news is helpful to the administration’s public health messaging. That appears to be the backdrop to a report yesterday in the Boston Herald that there have been nearly 4,000 “breakthrough cases” of COVID in the state — infections among people who were fully vaccinated — and that 79 of those people have died. The paper said it received the data after filing a public records request with the state. 

Today, Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld whacks the Baker administration over the issue. He gives it the full Herald treatment, suggesting the handling of the paper’s request “smells like an attempted cover-up,” a charge evidently based on the administration waiting the full 10 days it was legally allowed before complying with the records request. 

“What is the DPH afraid of?” he asks, referring to the state Department of Public Health. “A bad news cycle?” 

Beyond just a bad news cycle, state officials were probably especially worried about how the news would be framed and what the public’s takeaway would be from the data. 

The Herald probably helped confirm those fears by blasting the news on its front-page yesterday, with the headline, “BLINDSIDED — Herald finds 71 fully vaxxed Mass. residents died from COVID.” 

Battenfeld says the state wound up releasing the data to all media following the newspaper’s push for the records. He says “most of the media lapdogs dutifully rehashed the DPH press release to put the best spin possible on the fact that 79 fully vaccinated people died of COVID.” That mostly seems to be a reference to the Globe’s story, which he says didn’t get to the 79 deaths until the fourth paragraph, after leading with the stat that only 0.1 percent of vaccinated people have been infected with COVID. 

It’s easy to be alarmed by numbers that aren’t considered in the right context. The state is desperate to push up vaccination rates, so anything that might be interpreted as evidence that vaccines don’t matter isn’t helpful to their cause. 

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were always touted as about 95 percent effective in preventing coronavirus infections, meaning there would be cases among those who get vaccinated. Virtually all new cases are now occurring among those not vaccinated, proof the state says, of just how important it is to get inoculated. 

As Battenfeld points out, we now know that early claims that any breakthrough cases would be mild are not 100 percent accurate. The state hasn’t offered a breakdown yet on the age or health background of those who died of COVID after being vaccinated.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

State officials might have done better to simply offer the report on breakthrough cases, complete with the broader context of how rare they are, unprompted by a public records request and the heightened attention that came when the data were reported as news state officials didn’t want you to know. 

Between his hammering of the administration for how it handled the data request, even Battenfeld says the 79 deaths, as tragic as they are, and the .1 percent infection rate among vaccinated residents are part of a good news story. 

“It’s fair to say that those numbers are actually pretty good,” he writes. “It shows the vaccine is mostly working.”