The COVID-19 vaccines are a remarkable medical innovation that may very well have saved tens of thousands of lives this past year. But let’s be clear: They are not doing what we were told they would do.

When the vaccines were first made available in early 2021, the public was led to believe that inoculation would prevent infection and transmission. President Joe Biden argued last summer that “you’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations.” Dr. Anthony Fauci similarly declared on a Zoom call with TikTokers that if they got vaccinated, they wouldn’t have to worry about catching COVID-19. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow claimed in March that COVID-19 “cannot use a vaccinated person as a host to get more people” and that the “virus does not infect them.”

Now we know this is untrue.

Fully vaccinated adults are testing positive for COVID-19 at about the same rate as unvaccinated people, regardless of how many booster shots they’ve gotten. And while the vaccines may prevent transmission marginally, insofar as they might help reduce the number of days a person is contagious, there is little evidence that they are doing anything at all to prevent the spread of the omicron variant, which is far more contagious but thankfully much less severe than the original COVID-19 strain.

That’s OK — the purpose of the vaccines was never to wipe out COVID-19 completely. Viruses mutate. In a world of 7 billion people, it is impossible to stop that from happening.

The goal of vaccination was to protect people from severe illness as much as possible — to limit hospitalization and death. The vaccines have done that. A report from the Department of Health and Human Services in October found that COVID-19 vaccinations reduced hospitalizations among vulnerable citizens by more than 100,000 and deaths by 39,000. That’s a lot of lives saved.

Vaccination, then, has to be understood as an individual effort. It is a decision each person must make for his or her own benefit because it is a decision that only directly affects his or her health.

That’s not how public health officials have sold this vaccine. They have sold it as a public effort, a decision that affects the entire community. Indeed, officials bought so wholly into this collectivist attitude that they decided vaccination shouldn’t be a decision at all but should be mandatory. Hence the vaccine mandates becoming common in certain industries and liberal cities.

These mandates have always been socially unjustifiable, but now we know they are medically indefensible as well. Omicron has proven that widespread vaccination, even universal vaccination, cannot stop the spread. Some of the most vaccinated jurisdictions in the country are logging the most positive cases right now. And if vaccination doesn’t prevent transmission, there is no reason to treat unvaccinated people differently from the vaccinated. They’re all capable of spreading the virus — whether they want to risk serious illness from that virus is up to them.

Public officials’ messaging on vaccination was wrong from the get-go. It's time to acknowledge the facts, but that would require them to treat us all like responsible human beings capable of self-governance. That’s something our health bureaucrats are reluctant to do.