There’s no doubt that a new CCP Virus narrative is quickly becoming established in the United States, and it was succinctly expressed by Predident Biden last month:
“[T]he data is clear: If you are unvaccinated, you’re at risk of getting seriously ill or dying or spreading it. People getting seriously ill and being hospitalized due to COVID-19 are those who have not been fully vaccinated. The new variant will leave unvaccinated people even more vulnerable than they are a month ago — over a month ago.
“This is a serious concern, especially because of what experts are calling the…the ‘Delta’ variant. It’s a variant that is more easily transmissible, potentially deadlier, and particularly dangerous for young people.
“But the good news is, we have the solution.The science and the data are clear: The best way to protect yourself against these variants are to get fully vaccinated.”
And earlier this week, the nation’s supposed newspaper of record, The New York Times, dutifully presented this analysis as the kind of information that’s factual and uncontroversial enough (among anyone but fanatics and troglodytes) to be used as routine background material:
“While nationwide cases and hospitalization numbers remain relatively low, more local hot spots are emerging and the national trends are moving in the wrong direction, fueled by the spread of the more contagious Delta variant. Vaccines are effective against the variant. Counties that voted for Mr. Biden average higher vaccination levels than those that voted for former President Donald J. Trump. Conservatives tend to decline vaccination far more often than Democrats.”
And practically in lock step, today’s Washington Post tells us, “Federal health officials sounded an alarm Friday about a surge in U.S. coronavirus infections fueled by the twin threats posed by the highly transmissible delta variant and a stagnation in efforts to vaccinate as many Americans as possible.”
It’s now nearly a month after the Biden remarks, though, and the only reasonable conclusion to reach is “Not so fast.” It is indeed clear so far that the vaccines available to Americans work against Delta. It’s also clear that the new variant is extremely contagious. It’s anything but clear, though, that its rapid spread justifies even a doubling down on lagging national vaccination efforts, much less the kind of shaming campaign against vaccine hesitancy and related “misinformation” behind which the Biden administration is marshaling the power of the federal government.
The main reasons? First, contrary to the Biden claims about Delta’s dangers, the U.S. numbers show no sign of unusual lethality or other forms of severity. Second, although Delta has quickly become the dominant form of new infection, the relationship between its appearance and vaccination rates looks awfully weak.
Regarding Delta’s characteristics, evidence of its high transmissibility can be seen in the rising numbers of U.S. virus cases. Since the President spoke out last month, the seven-day average of reported infections is up by just over 139 percent as of yesterday. (I’m using the Washington Post’s virus tracking feature as my source unless otherwise indicated.)
But not to minimize the risks to certain segments of the population (the elderly, the obese, those with other underlying health problems), when it comes to healthy non-senior Americans generally, this statistic per se means almost nothing.
After all, it’s long been known that one of the most vexing properties of the virus is its asymptomatic spread. That is, huge numbers of Americans have been infected and simply didn’t know it because they never detected any effects. Many others doubtless had symptoms so mild that they didn’t bother reporting them.
In this vein, it’s more than a little interesting that former U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb (no virus minimizer or vaccine skeptic) just told CNBC that “he believes the U.S. is significantly undercounting the number of Covid delta infections, making it difficult to know whether the highly transmissible strain is causing higher-than-expected hospitalization and death rates.”
Why the undercount? Because “people who are vaccinated, who might develop some mild symptoms or might develop a breakthrough case, by and large are not going out and getting tested. If you’ve been vaccinated and you develop a mild cold right now, you don’t think you have Covid.” Wouldn’t the same hold for the un-vaccinated, whether they have natural immunity or not?
That’s surely why even though since the Biden remarks, while total CCP Virus infections have more than doubled, reported virus-related deaths are actually down (by nearly six percent according to that seven-day average measure). Deaths are indeed a lagging indicator (because the disease doesn’t reach mortality level right away), and there’s evidence that in “some cases,” “Long-Haul COVID” can kill (and sicken) for months after the initial infection.
But if the Delta variant was nearly as lethal as it is virulent, since it’s accounted for a skyrocketing – and now the biggest – share of total national infections, you wouldn’t expect the national death rate to be falling for the past month.
Nor do the national rates of hospitalization and intensive-care unit (ICU) bed use signal that Delta will overwhelm the healthcare system (the fear that originally spurred the lockdown-/shutdown-/social distancing-/mask-heavy CCP Virus response throughout the country) unless vaccination rates surge. Indeed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between the week of the Biden remarks and the week ending July 10, hospitalizations, new weekly hospitalizations fell, too – from 597 to 523.
Meanwhile, the feebleness of the link between vaccination rates and the Delta variant’s proliferation comes through from an examination of state-specific data.
Below is a list of the states whose hospitalization rate increases over the last week (in descending order, through yesterday) are above that national average of 25 percent, with their specific rates on the left and their (full) vaccination rates on the right:
Alaska: +114% 44.7%
Kansas: +61% 42.8%
Mississippi: +50% 33.6%
Louisiana: +50% 36.0%
Idaho: +48% 36.8%
Connecticut: +47% 62.0%
Arkansas: +44% 35.1%
Oklahoma: +42% 39.3%
Florida: +42% 47.3%
Texas: +39% 42.6%
Nebraska: +38% 48.5%
Alabama: +35% 33.6%
Georgia: +32% 37.5%
California: +30% 51.4%
Arizona: +30% 44.3%
Tennessee: +27% 38.2%
Nevada: +25% 43.1%
Now keep in mind that the national average full vaccination rate for the country was 48.3 percent, and several big anomalies should stick out immediately, beginning with Alaska. Its hospitalizations apparently soared, yet its vaccination rate was pretty close to the national average. How can that be, if vaccination is so crucial to slowing or stopping the spread of any of the variants?
Of course, with Alaska, the absolute numbers are very small, so any time they change, big percentage changes tend to result. But a very similar pattern also holds for much more populous states like Kansas, Florida, Texas, and Arizona, and a slightly less similar pattern holds for Nevada. As for Florida, moreover, its infections have been growing at the same rate as Oklahoma’s, but its vaccination rate is a good deal higher.
And then there’s Nebraska. Its hospitalization has risen strongly, but its vaccination rates is actually above the national average. Conversely, Connecticut’s vaccination rate is way above the national average, but hospitalizations are increasing robustly anyway.
So that’s eight states out of the sixteen with above-average infection growth (eight if you count Oklahoma) where the narrative doesn’t hold up well.
But maybe the narrative’s relationship between infection growth and vaccination rates is stronger for states where virus spread has been relatively slow – i.e., below the national average? Here are the states with the best infection numbers, from the gold standard to the merely good. Again, infection change rates are on the left and vaccination rates on the right:
North Dakota: -18% 39.5%
Rhode Island: -15% 60.2%
Minnesota: -14% 52.9%
Maryland: -12% 57.5%
Pennsylvania: -11% 51.0%
West Virginia: -11% 38.8%
South Dakota: -7% 46.2%
Illinois -3% 47.4%
Maine: -2% 62.7%
Virginia: -1% 53.2%
Iowa: -1% 48.8%
Ohio: +2% 45.6%
Washington: +2% 56.3%
New Jersey: +2% 56.7%
Michigan: +2% 48.1%
New York: +3% 55.7%
Indiana: +3% 44.3%
Wisconsin: +4% 50.9%
Oregon: +11% 54.9%
D.C.: +12% 53.7%
Delaware: +16% 51.4%
Colorado: +12% 53.3%
Montana: +17% 43.6%
Wyoming: +18% 35.9%
North Carolina: +18% 42.8%
New Mexico: +18% 55.2%
Hawaii: +19% 52.8%
Kentucky: +21% 44.6%
Missouri: +22% 40.0%
Utah: +22% 43.6%
New Hampshire: +22% 57.5%
South Carolina: +23% 39.7%
Again, as should be obvious, the relationship between virus prevalence and vaccination rates is far from obvious. In fact, here again, the state at the top of the list seems to undermine the narrative most thoroughly. North Dakota’s vaccination rate is one of the country’s worst, yet its infection record is the very best on a percentage basis.
Of course, North Dakota’s population is so small that, as with Alaska, changes in absolute numbers can produce big percentage swings. The same goes for the results for West Virginia and South Dakota. But Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan boast big populations, and despite subpar vaccination rates, have seen CCP Virus case numbers fall a bit and rise a bit, respectively. The situation in somewhat less populous Indiana looks like theirs, too. Maybe there’s something about the Big Ten?
At the other end of this spectrum, New Mexico, Hawaii, and New Hampshire have excellent vaccination rates, but lousy virus spread numbers.
And here are some strange coincidences. South Carolina and North Dakota have nearly identical, and very low, vaccination rates. But in the former, CCP Virus cases are up 23 percent on week whereas they’re down by 18 percent in the latter. Conversely, New Hampshire and Maryland both have very high vaccination rates, but infections are up 22 percent in the former and down 12 percent in the latter over the last week. And although North Carolina and New Mexico have seen weekly cases rise at identical 18 percent rates, their vaccination rates are more than twelve and a half percentage points apart.
As I’ve written previously, when comparing the virus story in different states, it’s important to keep in mind how different population structures and different weather patterns can lead to very different results regardless of the policy choices they’ve made. That’s why, for example, I didn’t call attention to the virtually identical weekly case growth rates of Idaho and Connecticut (48 percent and 47 percent, respectively) and their dramatically different vaccination rates (36.8 percent and 62 percent, respectively). Two less alike states you couldn’t even create out of whole cloth.
Of course I can’t find it in my too-often chaotic personal library, but in David Halberstam’s masterpiece on the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, I recall the author writing of Walt W. Rostow – one of the hubristic crew of Ivy League academics who became leading architects of this disaster – that he was constantly seeing connections between trends and events where none existed. I strongly suspect that history will judge purveyors of the latest, Delta-centric CCP Virus narrative just as harshly.