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Why vaccine refusal makes sense for Olympic swimmer Michael Andrew and him alone

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TOKYO — Back in January, Michael Andrew, the Olympic gold medal contender who seems magnetic to controversy, gave what seemed like a perfectly reasonable answer to a question about whether he'd get vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Um, I'm not sure," he said. He was hesitant, he explained, because he’d already had COVID. He contracted it in late 2020. "So my thought pattern is, if I've already got it, there's not as much health risk to me," he said.

Months later, he'd expand on that thought pattern. He'd explain how he carefully considered incentives; how vaccine side effects could disrupt his carefully crafted training schedule; and how, because he likely had strong immunity to the virus from his previous infection, he believed that the risks of vaccination, for him, as an Olympian, outweighed the risks of going to Tokyo unvaccinated.

Everything he said sounded rational. Nothing he said was factually, objectively incorrect. But of course, those weren't the headlines. The story was simply that Andrew, a 22-year-old gold medal favorite, was refusing the vaccine. Some took that to mean he was an anti-vaxxer. (He's not.) Social media hate started to flow. Fans tugged Andrew's decision into the broader nationwide fight against vaccine hesitancy, which is killing Americans day after day.

Andrew is not doing that. He's likely not harming anybody. And yet his vaccination status has become a subject of constant fixation. TV networks invited him on air specifically to talk about it. Olympic champs unfurled critical Twitter threads. Even here in Tokyo on Thursday, two days before the start of the swimming competition, journalists pressed U.S. head coach Dave Durden about Andrew's Olympic Village living arrangements.

The discourse, frankly, has gotten out of hand.

OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 19:  Michael Andrew of the United States competes in a semifinal heat for the Men's 50m freestyle during Day Seven of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CHI Health Center on June 19, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 19: Michael Andrew of the United States competes in a semifinal heat for the Men's 50m freestyle during Day Seven of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CHI Health Center on June 19, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Broadly, debates over vaccine acceptance are worthwhile and one-sided. The overwhelming majority of Americans should get vaccinated, of course, to curb the spread of COVID and bring the pandemic to an end, to herd immunity, to a point of no return. Science overwhelmingly supports vaccination, on both individual and collective levels. Shots come with minimal risk and massive potential communal reward.

But science doesn't absolutely support this somehow-conventional wisdom that Andrew is a major threat to his peers. Although studies have shown that immunity from natural infection wanes over time, reinfection half a year later remains rare. Research suggests "that antibodies and immune memory are retained at decent levels over a year," John Moore, a Cornell virologist, says.

Vaccination can reinforce immunity, and that's why public health experts almost unanimously recommend it even to people who've been previously infected. But the benefit is marginal. And as Andrew pointed out, in the narrow context of elite sport and the Olympics, vaccination comes with marginal risk as well. Vaccination does leave some people feeling feverish or sluggish for a day or two. It could have left Andrew briefly unable to train at full-tilt. For a vast majority of humans, those extremely short-term side effects should be afterthoughts. For an Olympian, the calculus is different. Practices are sketched out in unimaginable detail months in advance, day by day, set by set. Losing a day to vaccine side effects wouldn't be a colossal setback. But in a sport defined by tiny fractions of seconds, it wouldn't be completely irrelevant either.

Andrew's choice, of course, is a selfish one, and selfish behavior helps explain hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths. In that January interview, he didn't seem to understand that the benefit of vaccination is not just personal, direct protection; it's the indirect protection that the gradual interruption of COVID-19 transmission chains can afford a community.

"Obviously," he said, "I think [vaccination] makes more sense for someone older age, who maybe can't fight [COVID] as well."

No, Michael — it makes sense for almost everybody. And you'll fall under that "almost everybody" umbrella once the Games are over.

But many elite athletes are, by necessity, somewhat selfish. They make some decisions with the primary or exclusive purpose of furthering their careers; of optimizing performance; of priming themselves for stages like the Olympics. Andrew's USA Swimming teammates do that as well, and if his decision truly hindered or endangered them at any significant scale, then it would be problematic. But the risk that Andrew poses to them, just like the risk vaccination would've posed to his training regimen, is minute.

You can certainly dispute his interpretation of the incentives, given that a positive COVID test in Tokyo would rule him out of competition. And you can certainly call him selfish. You can also point out that one piece of his rationale — "going to the Games not only unvaccinated but as an American, I'm representing my country in multiple ways and the freedoms we have to make a decision like that" — is stupid.

But his real rationale is sound, logically. This story is a minor one about minuscule risks and rewards. There are countless people with completely irrational or cruel motives for refusing vaccination. Michael Andrew is, among many other things, not one of them.

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