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

TOKYO - Back in January, Michael Andrew, the Olympic gold medal contender who seems magnetic to controversy, gave a seemingly perfectly reasonable answer when asked if he would get vaccinated against COVID-19.
"Um, I'm not sure," he said. He said he was hesitant because he had already had COVID. He contracted it at the end of 2020. "So my thinking pattern is that if I already have it, I'm not that big of a health risk," he said.
Months later, he would expand this thought pattern. He would explain how he carefully considered incentives; how side effects of the vaccine could interfere with 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 an unvaccinated trip to Tokyo.
Everything he said sounded rational. Nothing he said was factually, objectively wrong. But of course that wasn't the headlines. The story was simple that Andrew, a 22-year-old gold medal favorite, turned down the vaccine. Some thought it was an anti-Vaxxer. (It isn't.) The hate on social media began to flow. Fans drew Andrew's decision in the broader national battle against vaccine reluctance to kill Americans day in and day out.
Andreas doesn't do that. It probably won't harm anyone. Yet his vaccination status has become an object of constant fixation. TV stations specifically invited him on air to talk about it. Olympic champions unfolded critical Twitter threads. Even here in Tokyo on Thursday, two days before the start of the swimming competition, journalists urged US head coach Dave Durden about Andrew's housing conditions in the Olympic Village.
To be honest, the discourse has gotten out of hand.
OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 19: Michael Andrew of the United States will perform in Omaha, Nebraska on June 19, 2021 on June 7th (Photo by Al Bello / Getty Images)
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By and large, debates about vaccine acceptance are worthwhile and one-sided. The overwhelming majority of Americans should, of course, get vaccinated to contain the spread of COVID and end the pandemic to make herd immunity the point of no going back. Science overwhelmingly supports vaccination, both on an individual and on a collective level. Shots involve minimal risk and massive potential community rewards.
But science doesn't necessarily support this somewhat conventional wisdom that Andrew poses a great threat to his colleagues. Although studies have shown that immunity to natural infection decreases over time, re-infection remains rare six months later. Research suggests "antibodies and immune memory are kept at decent levels for over a year," says John Moore, a Cornell virologist.
Vaccination can boost immunity, which is why public health experts almost unanimously recommend it even to people who have previously been infected. But the benefit is marginal. And as Andrew pointed out, vaccination also carries a low risk in the narrow context of top-class sport and the Olympic Games. The vaccination leaves some people with a fever or sluggishness for a day or two. Andrew might not have been able to exercise at full strength for a short time. For the vast majority of people, these extremely short-term side effects should be considered in retrospect. The calculation is different for an Olympian. The practices are outlined in unimaginable detail months in advance, day after day, sentence by sentence. Losing a day to vaccine side effects wouldn't be a huge setback. But in a sport that is defined by tiny fractions of a second, it wouldn't be completely irrelevant either.
Andrew's choice is selfish, of course, 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 is the indirect protection that the gradual disruption of COVID-19 transmission chains can offer a community.
"Obviously," he said, "I think [vaccination] makes more sense for someone in old age who may not be able to fight [COVID] either."
No, Michael - it makes sense to almost everyone. And when the games are over, you will fall under that "almost everyone" screen.
But many top athletes are inevitably a bit selfish. You are making some decisions with the primary or exclusive purpose of advancing your career; the performance optimization; prepare for stages like the Olympics. Andrew's USA Swimming teammates do so too, and if his decision really hinders or endangers them in any significant way then it would be problematic. But the risk Andrew poses to them is just as small as the risk vaccination for his training plan.
You can certainly dispute his interpretation of the incentives, as a positive COVID test in Tokyo would exclude him from the competition. And you can certainly call him selfish. You can also point out that part of his rationale - "not just going to the Games unvaccinated, but as an American, I represent my country in many ways and the freedoms we have to make such a decision" - is stupid .
But its true rationale is logically reasonable. This story is a little one about tiny risks and rewards. There are countless people with completely irrational or cruel motives for refusing vaccinations. Michael Andrew is not one of them.
More Olympics coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Do Ledecky's opponents believe they have a chance at all?
Biles becomes the first female athlete to receive Twitter hashtag emoji
Chief fire of the opening ceremony in Tokyo because of Holocaust jokes
Keyser: Softball needs the Olympics, but baseball has to take care of it too
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Michael Andrew
American swimmer

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