Another Merry Coronavirus Christmas

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, we’re only “halfway through World War II” in our fight against the virus as the World Health Organization urges people to cancel Christmas again and President Biden responds by rolling out a lot of additional testing while berating the unvaccinated.  In the meantime, life goes on as it always does…

When I first launched this blog last November, I corresponded with a progressive on Facebook that insisted cancelling Thanksgiving was no big deal because it’s only one holiday.  I gently reminded her that government health experts already recommended cancelling Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, and that Christmas was surely next on the list.  Fast forward another year and it’s deja vu all over again as they say:  Coronavirus is once again on the march and Christmas is in the crosshairs.  Doctor Anthony Fauci says we’re officially in a war and he (along with presumably us) must soldier on to the completely unknown bitter end.  “You know, we’re in a war, Jon,” he explained to ABC News’ Jonathan Karl. “It’s kind of like we’re halfway through World War II, and you decide, well, I think I’ve had enough of this. I’m walking away. You can’t do that. You’ve got to finish it—and we’re going to finish this and get back to normal.”

The good doctor says this while simultaneously insisting we might be wearing masks on planes forever.  “You have to be wearing a mask on a plane,” he commanded.  Mr. Karl asked him specifically if that would be the case in perpetuity.  Can we ever take the mask off on a plane?  “I don’t think so. I think when you’re dealing with a closed space, even though the filtration is good, that you want to go that extra step when you have people—you know, you get a flight from Washington to San Francisco, it’s well over a five-hour flight. Even though you have a good filtration system, I still believe that masks are a prudent thing to do, and we should be doing it.”  How good is the air filtration system on a plane?  Superior to a hospital intensive care unit.  So good, airline CEO’s don’t believe wearing masks is doing anything to slow the spread of coronavirus right now, much less at some indefinite point in the culture.  “I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment,” explained Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest, when he appeared before Congress last week. “It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”

Dr. Fauci’s comments come in the midst of yet another wave of coronavirus, this time powered by the Omicron variant which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates now accounts for 73% of cases in the United States.  Cases themselves have exploded over the course of the past several weeks, rising to the highest levels since mid-September.  The 7-day average in the United States as of Tuesday was 146,554, up from 71,975 as recently as November 28.  Perhaps even worse, the daily totals are spiking to levels rarely seen in the past, 298,761 new cases this past Monday, suggesting that the average will rise dramatically and we are just getting started.  In the meantime, the CDC’s map of community transmission paints almost the entire United States in bright red with 79.8% of counties experiencing high transmission and only 2.11% low.  Ironically, much maligned Texas and Florida have many counties sitting in the moderate category.  Blue states like New York, Vermont, and most of California are all red, likely reflecting the seasonal pattern we saw last winter.

This rapid increase over just a few short weeks is causing public health professionals and some state and local officials to reimpose restrictions and re-iterate the same warnings we’ve been hearing since March 2020.  Dr. Fauci’s boss, the outgoing Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, is urging people to seriously consider whether they need to travel or gather for the Christmas holiday.  “I’m not going to say you shouldn’t travel, but you should do so very carefully,” he explained, before noting that he was referring to the vaccinated.  The unvaccinated should definitely remain at home.  The World Health Organization concurs for both groups. “An event canceled is better than a life canceled,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference on Monday.  “It’s better to cancel now and celebrate later, than to celebrate now and grieve later.”  New York, California, Chicago, and Washington DC have re-imposed their mask mandates.  New York is supporting the newly imposed mandate with “spot checks” on certain businesses.  “This is our policy, the New York state requirement that there be a mask worn in any facility that does not require vaccinations, so that is our rule,” Hochul says. “So, we’re here to continue enforcement as well as providing resources for the counties that ask for it.”  Broadways shows and sporting events have been cancelled. There are reports of school districts in some localities returning to fully virtual as soon as January.

The federal government has stopped short of new restrictions, focusing instead on testing, vaccinations, and of course masks, plus vague peons to social distancing and other “prevention” strategies.  President Joe Biden announced his newly expanded approach at the White House on Tuesday, beginning with a healthy dose of the supposed empathy his supporters feel he’s famous for.  “Good afternoon.  I promised when I got elected that I’d always give it to you straight from the shoulder — the good, the bad, the truth.  So, as we head into Christmas weekend, I want to answer your questions about the rising number of COVID cases — COVID-19 cases.”  Unfortunately, the President’s attempt to reassure Americans was likely undermined by coughing and stumbling over his words throughout the performance. A reporter for Real Clear Politics described him as  “weary and exhausted.”   President Biden almost immediately switched from empathy to taking aim at the unvaccinated, saying “you have good reason to be concerned.  You’re at a high risk of getting sick.  And if you get sick, you’re likely to spread it to others, including friends and family.  And the unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in a hospital or even dying. Almost everyone who has died from COVID-19 in the past many months has been unvaccinated.  Unvaccinated.”  He continued to suggest that the vaccinated don’t need to worry, “especially if you’ve gotten the booster shot — that third shot — you’re much — you have much, much less reason to worry.  You have a high degree of protection against severe illness.”

This is likely true, but also entirely vague, unclear, and oversold:  There are no studies about the efficacy of the vaccine or the booster on Omicron.  What we do know is that the vaccine was significantly less effective against Delta and that trend might continue, though there is the suggestion that Omicron tends to be far less severe.  ABC News reports that “federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is incomplete, only accounting for a subset of states,” but their “analysis found that between April and November, more than 16,700 vaccinated people had died — the vast majority since the start of the delta variant’s surge, earlier this summer. Similarly, nearly all – approximately 96% — of the 1.8 million breakthrough cases – have come during the same time period.”  By comparison, 64,000 unvaccinated Americans died over the same period, making you about 5 times more likely to die from coronavirus if you are unvaccinated.  Still, vaccinated deaths account for over 20.7% of those studied, a far cry from “almost everyone.”  In other words, we are precisely where we were earlier this year:  The vaccine is the best protection we have, but it’s continually oversold and little attention is paid to either natural immunity or the underlying risk factors that cause coronavirus to be more severe in the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.

Instead of acknowledging this reality and targeting the segment of the population at the highest risk, we continue to push ahead with a one-size fits all strategy that President Biden himself finally acknowledged is unpopular.  “I know vaccination requirements are unpopular for many.  They’re not even popular for those who are anxious to get them.   But my administration has put them in place not to control your life, but to save your life and the lives of others.”  In addition to vaccines, the Biden Administration is touting improved testing, even as the current tests are scarce in many states.  Yesterday, The Guardian reported “US grapples with Covid test shortage amid surge,” adding “There’s a lot of anxiety.”  Kevin Bruyneel is a history professor at Babson College who has been tested more than 100 times, typically waiting 15 minutes and paying nothing.  Recently, he was at a clinic in New York where we waited an hour and was billed at least a $100.  “There were a lot of people in line, incredibly desperate to get tested because they were flying” for the holidays, explained Mr. Bruyneel. “There was a lot of anxiety.”

The problems with testing go back to the summer, after the arrival of the vaccines when “everyone thought testing was going to be unnecessary, and we sort of had neglect, which turned out not to be benign,” explained Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and member of Biden’s coronavirus transition team.  Abbott Laboratories, a leading testing manufacturer, actually destroyed millions of tests, cancelled contracts with suppliers, and closed a plant making tests.  Wait times in New York City now average over an hour.  Detroit is also experiencing long delays, and there are delays elsewhere in the country as well. I couldn’t find a rapid testing sight with an available appointment within 25 miles of my home in New Jersey.  As The Guardian puts it, “While the federal government works to ramp up testing, people are trying to figure out when to test before holiday gatherings – or whether to gather at all.”  You read that right:  We’re ramping up testing, yet again, and now have shortages on President Biden’s watch.  Last year, about a month before his inauguration, he had this to say.  “After 10 months of the pandemic, we still don’t have enough testing.  It’s a travesty.”  At the time, he also claimed, “I can see a return to normalcy in the next year,” saying March was most likely and noting “My ability to change the direction of this pandemic starts in three weeks.”

Clearly, President Biden has failed by his own standard.  Even though he was gifted by the Trump Administration with an approved vaccine, something he finally acknowledged on Tuesday, he has been completely unable to control the spread or even ensure adequate testing supplies, promising unvaccinated people a “winter of severe illness and death” just this past weekend.  This should not be surprising when no one in the history of the world has ever stopped a spreading virus and we’ve developed an odd obsession with testing healthy people who are exhibiting no symptoms, artificially driving up the case count and potentially spreading panic more so than the virus itself.

The President’s plan, apparently, is more of the same:  He announced the availability of some 500,000,000 in home tests that will be shipped directly to people starting next year.  “We also need to do better with at-home testing.  So, I’m announcing today: The federal government will purchase one half billion — that’s not million; billion with a ‘B’ — additional at-home rapid tests, with deliveries starting in January.   We’ll be getting these tests to Americans for free.  And we’ll have websites where you can get them delivered to your home.”  Oddly, the administration was against this in-home testing approach before they were for it.  Two weeks earlier, Press Secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the idea when it was broached by a reporter from NPR, asking “Should we just send one to every American?”  Now that it’s almost precisely what they’re doing, and Ms. Psaki is saying “I would say there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t leave this podium and wish I would have said something with greater context or more precision or additional information.”

Completely left unsaid:  What is the benefit of all this testing either at home or at the pharmacist?  How are more tests going to slow the spread?  They’re not, of course, though they will certainly make it easier for Americans to comply with travel and other testing mandates.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say where we go from here.  73.2% of the US population has received one dose of the vaccine, 61.6% two doses, and 19.9% are boosted, but coronavirus is still spreading, by some reports worse than ever.  They continue to insist vaccines work, and if you look at hospitalizations and deaths they certainly offer a reasonable level of protection, yet still not enough to stop the virus in its tracks.  It’s not clear anything can do that, though we have been trying for almost two years.  At what point do we have an honest conversation about how long this can possibly go on before everyone just has a Merry Christmas again?

PS: Yesterday, the FDA approved a new treatment pill that studies show has a tremendous success rate.  So far, the Biden Administration hasn’t focused much on therapeutics, but CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky claimed that they would start once this breakthrough treatment was approved.  Let’s hope that’s the case.

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