A different approach needed to deal with Covid

Let me shock you by saying that President Biden’s declaration that “there is no federal solution” to the pandemic isn’t quite as appalling as it may initially seem, and that the bigger and more consequential problem is that he and his administration are applying solutions designed for a deadly and less contagious virus to a less deadly and much-more-contagious variant. Cloth masks don’t work well anymore, vaccination won’t stop widespread infections or rapid spread, and if everybody’s going to get it regardless of vaccination status, it doesn’t make much sense to try to punish the unvaccinated anymore, now, does it?

In context, President Biden’s comment that “there is no federal solution” to the pandemic isn’t quite the declaration of surrender that it sounds like in a short, isolated clip. Biden was speaking off the cuff about the importance of cooperation between federal government and state governments. And for what it is worth, Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, had plenty of praise for how the administration responded to his requests.

GOVERNOR HUTCHINSON OF ARKANSAS: I appreciate your leadership. And thank you so much for giving us the time today to hear from us, but also so that we can hear from you personally about the challenge that we face. So, Mr. President, the microphone is yours. Thank you, President Biden.

THE PRESIDENT: Asa — thank you very much, Asa. Look, there is no federal solution. This gets solved at a state level. I’m looking at Governor Sununu on the board here. He talks about that a lot. And then it ultimately gets down to where the rubber meets the road, and that’s where the patient is in need of help or preventing the need for help. Look, Gov, thank you for — for what you’re doing. Thank you for the National Governors Association and Vice Chair Murphy across the river. All’s well in New Jersey, I assume, Gov. And —

GOVERNOR MURPHY: Amen, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: — and here today, Democrats and Republicans.

But the idea that the pandemic can only be solved at the state level is a dramatically different message than what President Biden was saying back on September 9, when he contended that the federal government could end the pandemic if it wasn’t for idiotic Republican governors: “If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way . . . We have the tools. Now we just have to finish the job with truth, with science, with confidence, and together as one nation.”

If Biden’s comment from yesterday is being blown up as a bigger deal than it was, we’re still left with a president who offered the wildly unrealistic promise “I’m going to shut down the virus!” We’re left with a president who criticized his predecessor for not rolling out enough tests, and then himself didn’t roll out enough tests before winter, and apparently didn’t remember his past promises to dramatically expand testing. (Vanity Fair reported, “Three experts who interacted with the White House came to believe that the Biden administration had deprioritized rapid testing, partly out of concern that people would opt for that instead of getting vaccinated.”)

We are now stuck with an administration that is pursuing strategies and policies completely unsuited for the hyper-contagious but thankfully milder Omicron variant.

The Omicron variant flourishes like kudzu in the bronchus, the two large tubes that carry air from your windpipe to your lungs and back. Rapid reproduction in the bronchus likely results in an infected person exhaling more of the virus with every breath, making the virus spread faster and more widely. (Thankfully, the variant’s inability to replicate quickly inside the lungs gives the infected person’s body better odds of overcoming the infection.)

But all of this exhalation of more viruses means that preventative measures that people have come to rely on aren’t generating the same results. For starters, vaccination never protected against infection, but this holiday season is bringing a tidal wave of (again, thankfully minor) cases among many fully vaccinated and/or boosted individuals. (Yesterday on the daily new case charts of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, you can see more than 500,000 new cases reported in one day. That may reflect the delayed reporting of cases from Christmas Day. Either way, the seven-day average is now past 237,000 new cases per day.)

America’s sports leagues are offering a vivid demonstration of the limits of vaccination. As of December 15, 94.6 percent of National Football League players are vaccinated. And yet since December 13, more than 475 NFL players have tested positive. For perspective, there are 1,696 players on the active rosters of the 32 NFL teams. And it’s not slowing down: “A record 106 NFL players were added to the league’s reserve/Covid-19 list on Monday according to Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network. That included 96 players who tested positive Monday, also a record.” (Vaccinated NFL players can only return to practice and play after two negative tests at least 24-hours apart and will be tested every two weeks thereafter.)

It’s a similar story in the National Basketball Association —which has a 97 percent vaccination rate but roughly 120 players out under the league’s Covid-19 protocols — and the National Hockey League — a 99 percent vaccination rate, but with more than a quarter of the teams without enough cleared players, and 67 games already postponed for coronavirus-related reasons. As far as we know, none of these players have anything remotely close to life-threatening infections, and plenty are asymptomatic. They’re being held out of practices and games as a precaution, and some league officials, players, and fans are wondering just what is being accomplished with these protocols. (Whatever else you think of LeBron James, he has a point that right now the symptoms of a cold, the flu, and Covid are all pretty indistinguishable.)

Is the lesson of this that the vaccinations don’t work? No. The lesson is that widespread vaccination has achieved what some of the Covid-19 skeptics were asserting back in March 2020 — it turned SARS-CoV-2 into something comparable to a bad winter flu season. It’s a pain, but it’s not the sort of menace we shut down society to stop.

But if everyone is going to catch the Omicron variant — be they vaccinated, boosted, or unvaccinated — and if lots of infections are going to be minor or asymptomatic, it raises the question of why we need to fire people for being unvaccinated — particularly doctors and nurses at hospitals that are currently seeing a flood of patients. If everyone’s going to catch Omicron, why are we threatening to fire truckers during a supply-chain crisis? Why are we threatening to fire anyone, for that matter? No business threatens to fire an employee who skips an annual flu shot.

The hyper-contagiousness of Omicron also means that most of our masking protocols are requiring people to take actions that won’t do any good against this variant:

“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, on CNN Newsroom Tuesday.

“This is what scientists and public health officials have been saying for months, many months, in fact,” Wen added in a separate phone interview.

“We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask,” she said, which is also known as a disposable mask and can be found at most drugstores and some grocery and retail stores. “You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone.”

If everyone’s going to get it eventually, and the overwhelming majority of infections will be asymptomatic or mild, do we still need mask mandates in schools? If we’re going to have mask mandates, does it make sense to have kids or anyone else wearing cloth masks? Does any institution in America want to get into the business of making sure people are wearing three-ply surgical masks instead of cloth masks?

If everyone’s going to get it eventually, and the overwhelming majority of infections will be asymptomatic or mild, why are colleges and universities going back to virtual learning? And why is Anthony Fauci talking about a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel?

And while this could change, right now it looks as though the Delta variant is being squeezed out by Omicron. According to the CDC’s figures, on September 26, the Delta variant made up 99.3 percent of all Covid-19 cases in the U.S., but by December 18, Delta was down to 77 percent, with 22.5 percent of reported cases being the Omicron variant. Just seven days later, Omicron was 58.6 percent of reported cases, and the Delta variant was down to 41 percent.

If everyone’s going to get it eventually, and the overwhelming majority of infections will be asymptomatic or mild . . . aren’t we approaching the endgame? Within a few months, won’t everyone have some form of immunity from either vaccination or infection with Omicron?

Yesterday, social media was full of Biden defenders insisting that his pledge to “shut down the virus” only was unkept because of those terrible Republicans and because so many Americans “rejected” vaccinations. Those folks hate being reminded that the unvaccinated are a small minority — more than 85 percent of American adults have gotten at least one shot. And Omicron isn’t spreading like wildfire because 15 percent of American adults refused to get vaccinated. It’s spreading like wildfire because vaccination doesn’t stop all infections, it mitigates the effects of the infection.

If your plan to stop the pandemic required more than 85 percent of American adults to get vaccinated within a year, it was probably always an unrealistic plan.

In the last week or so, I heard about a ton of friends and acquaintances who felt really sick really quickly, were absolutely convinced they had Covid-19, scrambled to find a test, and then to their surprise tested negative. One possibility is that because of the vaccinations, some people’s bodies are now really ready to react to any pathogen, and so they’re responding to the common cold or the usual bugs with more intense defenses — more post-nasal drip, higher elevations of body temperature, more coughing, more sneezing, etc. Another possibility is that the mask-wearing and social distancing of 2020 that almost wiped out the usual flu season gave our bodies less practice of fighting off pathogens, and so that now that we’re encountering the usual winter bugs and colds again, our immune systems are jumping to Defcon One.

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