It was all over the TV on Tuesday: Breaking! News! The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is being paused due to a rare but dangerous side effect, a blood clotting disorder.
A little bee started buzzing around my brain. I’d received the J&J vaccine two days before. I’d made it through the shot–just a little sting–and the fifteen-minute post-injection period without going into anaphylactic shock. My only reactions so far had been shoulder twinges and feeling tired more than normal. I’d thought I was basically done with side effects. The prospect of being on high alert for the next couple of weeks set a bee buzzing in my brain.
The warning signs, said the doctor-commentators, included headache, stomachache, and leg pains. But don’t worry, it’s a very rare complication. One in a million—although concerning enough to close down clinics and stop giving the shots. Rare complications are the ones that I tend to fixate on during bouts of hypochondria. That passing pain at my right temple: surely an aneurysm fixing to blow. A morning cough: my first Covid symptom.
The bee was joined by a buddy. I began to feel indignant. I’d just started to relax! I realize that I don’t have some kind of right to feel relaxed, so this wasn’t a good reason to pout. Nevertheless I pouted and made a generic “Yikes!” post on Facebook. Friends rallied around with supportive comments, most of them statistics-based. One in a million means that the odds are on my side. Then they gave me more statistics. I had a much bigger chance of being struck by lightning, or drowning in the bathtub, or being in a car accident.
The bees weren’t convinced. Half the hive was in motion. I started assembling my outfit for the day and took a tumble over an electrical cord, nearly face-planting onto the sharp corner of my dresser and scratching my arm (chances of dying in a fall: 1 in 106). I swore for a while and then decided on an expedition: a trip to a favorite park where I could walk away the stress. I grabbed the car keys. About a mile from the house there’s one of those complicated intersections with a traffic light pattern that ensures left-turn bottlenecks. I was on my way through in the right lane when the SUV directly ahead of me sideswiped a sedan in the left lane (chances of dying in a car accident: 1 in 107). I was able to stop without adding a third car to the mess, but now the whole hive was buzzing.
Someone had planted a row of daffodils at the park entrance. While I walked I tried to drown out the bees by calculating whether avoiding disaster twice already in the day made it less or more likely that I would get a fatal blood clot. Probability doesn’t work that way, I’m told, but I’m fuzzy about how probability works in general. On the one hand, I don’t really subscribe to the idea that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” though appreciate the nice setup and punchline. It’s mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain and sounds like his style. Twain himself wrongly attributed it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Whoever came up with joke—maybe a different English politician, Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, maybe the Duke of Wellington, or various others—it went the Gilded Age equivalent of viral in the mid 1890s. On the other hand, probability and statistics class was the hill upon which my college math major died. I don’t have a good grasp of the subject.
My friends explained that the stats just remind us that we all do way riskier stuff every day than get a vaccine. Familiarity breeds complacency. I drive frequently. I bathe daily. I trip over stuff every few days. I go outdoors when it’s raining. I get a shot once every few years.
Ultimately I’m glad I got the vaccine. The benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks. I’m lucky to have received a shot before the program was paused. What odds there are of my life returning to normal increase with every vaccinated person.
However, it took a while—some hours, in fact—to settle the bees.