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Joe Rogan's Covid vaccine misinfo matters

Why bother calling out Rogan's lousy podcast take? As doctors, we know competing medical messages can be confusing — and consequential.
Image: Joe Rogan
Joe Rogan attends UFC 256 at UFC Apex in Las Vegas on Dec. 12.Jeff Bottari / Zuffa LLC via Getty Images file

It has been a year of terrible takes on Covid-19. Despite the presumed universal goal of getting through this pandemic sooner rather than later, a surprising number of Americans have lent their voices and platforms to conspiratorial thinking, rumors and medical myths. Enter comedian and self-styled thought leader Joe Rogan, who, honestly, nobody asked but has nonetheless weighed in with harmful and misinformed opinions about whether young people should be vaccinated against Covid-19. Rogan may play for laughs on his podcast, but none of this is funny.

Rogan may play for laughs on his podcast, but none of this is funny.

Rogan runs one of the most popular Spotify podcasts, getting tens of millions of downloads every month. In his episode Tuesday, he said that if asked, he would tell healthy young people not to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Noting first that he believes that vaccines are safe, Rogan argued that being young, exercising and eating healthily make the coronavirus (and coronavirus vaccines) a nonissue.

"But if you're, like, 21 years old and you say to me, 'Should I get vaccinated?' I'd go, 'No,'" he said. "Are you healthy? Are you a healthy person? Like, look, don't do anything stupid, but you should take care of yourself. If you're a healthy person and you're exercising all the time and you're young and you're eating well, I don't think you need to worry about this."

Rogan started off on the right track. The vaccines are safe. They're also highly effective, markedly reducing the risk of catching Covid-19, markedly reducing the risk of getting sick from Covid-19 and virtually eliminating the risk of dying of Covid-19. It's also true that the rate of severe illness and death in kids is lower than that in adults and that those with chronic diseases are at higher risk for severe illness and death. And "don't do anything stupid"? Very sound advice that we, as emergency medicine physicians, heartily endorse.

But beyond this, Rogan goes off the rails and into a sad abyss of generalizing from anecdotal personal experiences into the abandonment of pandemic-mitigation principles. He acknowledges and expresses sympathy for kids who have gotten sick and died from Covid-19, but not too much — since his kids had Covid-19, did just fine and were never "in agony." At one point, he even endorses the false narrative that Covid-19 is no worse than the flu. Based on his flawed understanding of the pandemic, he finally reaches the conclusion that healthy young people don't need to get vaccinated.

This conclusion isn't just misinformed; it's potentially dangerous.

Rogan failed to acknowledge that Covid-19 has already killed over 570,000 people in the U.S. — far more than the around 22,000 who died from the flu in 2019-20. And although 21-year-olds are less likely to be hospitalized or to die than, say, 60-year-olds who get Covid-19, their risk is not negligible. Healthy young adults and kids have suffered greatly and died from Covid-19, and this is meaningful.

Moreover, focusing on deaths is itself shortsighted. These numbers skip casually past the physical, neurological and emotional long-term effects of infection, even for younger adults.

Most important, Rogan demonstrates that he lacks a simple, fundamental understanding about how infectious diseases — including Covid-19 — spread. They spread among those susceptible (i.e., not vaccinated). Rampant spread of Covid-19 among the millions of people under 21 in the U.S., if they remain unvaccinated, poses an enormous public health threat not just to young people, but to the entire population. Younger, healthier adults already seem to be the ones most responsible for Covid-19 transmission.

And as viruses spread, they not only can cause suffering, but they also can mutate; they adapt. The more they are transmitted, the greater the chance that a more transmissible variant or a more lethal variant or a variant that evades our vaccine-induced immunity will emerge. Some of those variants may have different epidemiologic patterns, including affecting young people more often and gravely.

Vaccines do protect the individual — but getting vaccinated isn't just about the individual. It's also about protecting everyone in our community, now and in the future. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that those vaccinated against Covid-19 have a lower likelihood of spreading it.

Lots of funny people seem to understand this, by the way.

Why bother calling out Rogan's lousy take? His platform is enormous. Many people spend more time listening to Rogan than they do to health professionals. While scientists and doctors are generally more trusted, competing messages like Rogan's can be confusing and affect people's behaviors with regard to their health.

We don't expect everyone to be an expert. Still, those with influential platforms have a responsibility to be a little more careful and realize the ripple effects of misguidance and a casual piece of misinformation. A knowledgeable guest would have made all the difference — a celebrity message echoing expert interpretation can be a powerful reinforcement of the science. A little curiosity and humility go a long way, too: Acknowledging that you don't know why the CDC recommends vaccinations for younger, healthier people and asking the question of someone who does know would be helpful.

Indeed, this productive use of a platform is something other celebrities have already led the way on, from W. Kamau Bell to NFL star Patrick Mahomes.

Perhaps the best antidote to Rogan's comments is young people themselves. As Gabriel, a college student who falls in the category Rogan advised not to get vaccinated, told one of us: "Yes, I'd probably be fine if I got Covid, but I'd be spreading it to people who maybe aren't healthy and young. Getting it gives me peace of mind." (He also noted that news of healthy people who have fallen seriously ill — notably other NFL stars, like Von Miller — "really makes me question people who say that being in good shape and young will shield you completely.")

This feeling of responsibility tells us that the impact of Rogan's irresponsible statements may be mitigated by the fact that young people are, for the most part, savvy, diligent about Covid-19's risks and thoughtful about others' well-being during the pandemic.

Ultimately, the more people at every age get vaccinated, the greater our chances of getting the pandemic under control. Given that the vaccines are very, very safe and that we are all eager to get back out into society, the upsides fantastically outweigh the downsides. We are blessed to have effective and increasingly accessible vaccines. The response to early wins isn't to figure out how to stall out — it's to keep running and secure victory as soon as possible.

"Don't do anything stupid"? We stand by Rogan on that one. We recommend that people start by not taking health advice from his show.