The Morning Jolt

Health Care

What the Biden Administration Fears

President Joe Biden delivers remarks to members of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence nearby McLean, Va., July 27, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Yikes, what a way to start Thursday. The Biden administration fears another grim winter of COVID deaths, the CDC isn’t giving many details about the data that spurred its recent decision to urge Americans to put on masks again, more of America’s bluest corners have surprisingly “meh” vaccination rates, and two of the country’s biggest teachers’ unions announce that they oppose mandatory vaccinations for their members.

Winter Is Coming, Again

We have nearly 80 million unvaccinated Americans out there. Some chunk of that group have had COVID-19 since March 2020, and thus have some immunity to reinfection. (Some good news this week from the United Kingdom is a new study suggesting that “the number of reinfections is low overall, and reinfections with a high viral load (which are more likely to cause illness) are even lower.”)

Last year at this time, we were averaging around 67,000 new diagnosed COVID-19 cases per day. At the time, we thought that was bad, in large part because on average, about 1,000 Americans were dying from COVID-19 each day. But as winter arrived, and people spent more time indoors because of cold weather, cases skyrocketed much higher, with the seven-day average peaking at 255,000 new diagnosed cases per day in early January. The seven-day average of daily new deaths peaked on January 13, hitting 3,496 new deaths per day.

In other words, whatever shape the country is in during summer, when good weather has people spending more time outdoors, the country is probably going to be in worse shape when winter arrives, and people begin spending more time in close contact indoors.

Right now, we are averaging . . . around 67,000 new diagnosed COVID-19 cases per day, right around where we were this time last year. Thankfully, our seven-day average of daily new deaths is much lower than it was a year ago: It currently sits at 303. A COVID-19 case in a vaccinated person is unlikely to lead to serious health problems and extremely unlikely to kill that person.

If we maintain the current relatively slow pace of vaccinations — averaging 608,000 shots per day for the past week — we will administer another 76 million shots by December 1. That sounds like good progress, until you realize that most of those shots will be Pfizer and Moderna, meaning two shots are required. So perhaps by the start of December, another 40 million or so American adults and teenagers will be vaccinated.

That would still leave about 40 million unvaccinated Americans as the winter begins — and while that would feature fewer deaths than last winter, that’s still a lot of potential hospitalizations and deaths.

In fact, we’re currently seeing full or near-full hospitals in certain corners of the country. The Salt Lake City suburbs; Brevard County, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Augusta, Ga.

It is unnervingly conceivable that Delta or perhaps some other variant will cut another deadly swath through America’s unvaccinated this winter, filling up ICUs and spiking the daily death numbers again.

After one year on the job, President Joe Biden, who famously promised he would “shut down the virus, not shut down the country,” would have disappointingly modest results. Back in December, President-elect Biden insisted he was making a reasonable request for Americans to wear masks in public places for his first 100 days: “Just 100 days to mask, not forever. One hundred days.” It’s not forever, but now mask mandates have rapidly returned, including in every school, for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the CDC has turned on a dime. It doesn’t just want everyone in schools masked, and everyone in public spaces in areas with high caseloads. The CDC also wants vaccinated people to get tested if they’ve been around someone who has the virus, even if they don’t have any symptoms. “If results are positive, the infected should isolate at home for 10 days.”

Let’s walk through this. You get a vaccination that never promised to stop infections, only to greatly reduce the likelihood of hospitalization or death. After getting fully vaccinated, you go out and live your life and get infected, because there’s a really contagious variant going around. Even if you have no symptoms, you have to self-quarantine for ten days? For young and healthy people who were already at low risk for a serious reaction to COVID-19, just what is the upside of getting vaccinated here?

One of the really fascinating developments of this week has been health experts noting with frustration that the CDC hasn’t released the data to justify these recent reversals and are urging the federal agency to release this information. Now, the scientists are the ones expressing skepticism about SCIENCE™. There are concerning reports that this CDC decision was driven by the results of a study about breakthrough infections in India — where they’re using the AstraZeneca vaccine, not the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccines that Americans have received. Right on the CDC’s website, it declares that, “Studies from India with vaccines not authorized for use in the United States have noted relatively high viral loads and larger cluster sizes associated with infections with Delta, regardless of vaccination status.” The CDC also says that, “unpublished data are consistent with this,” which . . . is not really a triumph for openness and clarity in public-health policy.

And then there was this curious statement to STAT News Tuesday:

An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told STAT that health experts do not have studies proving that fully vaccinated people are transmitting the virus. Rather, the official said, the updated guidance is based on studies showing that vaccinated people who contract the Delta variant have similarly high levels of virus in their airways, which suggested that they may be infectious to others. With other variants, vaccinated people had substantially lower levels of virus in their noses and throats compared to unvaccinated people.

Whatever Biden thinks is the right approach to the Delta variant — and remember, he turns 79 in November, and hasn’t released a health report to the public since December 2019 — the country is full of federal, state and local officials, media voices, and medical talking heads who see the Delta variant as a reason to revert to March 12, 2020. No government official in a deep-blue state, county, or locality wants to be accused of underreacting to a rise in cases.

Then again, some of these deep-blue localities have surprisingly “meh” vaccination rates.

Montgomery County, Md., is contemplating reinstating social-distancing requirements and capacity limits for businesses. More than 69 percent of residents have received one dose, 63 percent are fully vaccinated.

Alexandria, Va., is urging people to wear masks indoors; the city is only 58 percent fully vaccinated, with 67 percent having one shot. It’s a similar story in Washington, D.C., where the district’s health director declared earlier this week, “Wearing a mask in indoor public settings provides an additional layer of protection for those who are fully vaccinated — and continues to be one of the key ways to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, namely young children.” Only 53 percent of D.C. residents are fully vaccinated, and 62 percent are partially vaccinated.

As I’ve been emphasizing all week, if you envision the unvaccinated as a pickup-truck-driving, MAGA-hat-wearing, rural older white male, you’re not getting the full picture.

And guess which big organizations just came out in opposition to vaccination requirements for their members?

So far, the nation’s two largest education unions, The National Education Association and the AFT, have declined to call for vaccine mandates. Instead, the NEA says that teachers should be given the option of weekly testing, while the AFT says it should be decided in contract negotiations between the workers and the company.

Oh, really? Who’s the paranoid anti-science anti-vaxxer now?

Jay Caruso made this point before I could: You cannot work yourself into a frenzy denouncing unvaccinated rural Americans and Trump voters as a bunch of ignorant, tin-foil-hat-wearing lunatics who are extending the pandemic and the suffering it has caused for everyone and then shrug when a bunch of teachers refuse to get vaccinated. The fact that these unions — powerful allies of the Democratic Party — are going to get little to no grief for their position that their members don’t need to get vaccinated if they don’t want to reveal that the vast majority of pro-vaccination rhetoric is really just political tribalism, dressed up in the rhetoric of public health.

ADDENDUM: A good line from Kevin Williamson: “People who are high achievers in one field mistakenly believe that they possess a kind of generalized cleverness applicable to other areas of endeavor — call it Krugman’s Fallacy.”

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