Covid-19 cases are down significantly, but not among the unvaccinated

Transmission of the SARS2 coronavirus is down significantly, but the disease is still running rampant among people who are not vaccinated against it
Demonstrators hold signs decrying local government restrictions to combat the spread of the SARS2 coronavirus. Portsmouth, NH, March 20, 2021. Photo: Marc Nozell/Flickr

First published at Daily Kos.

As of Wednesday the seven-day moving average for new Covid-19 cases in the United States, even using the more pessimistic WorldOMeters totals, is back to where it was in March 2020—a month after Trump gave his, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero” statement. With almost 17,000 new cases on Wednesday we’re certainly not down to zero, but things are better than they have been at any time since then. Deaths on Wednesday were still over 500, but that moving average is also the lowest the nation has seen since March 30, 2020.

Pause there for a moment. For last 16 months, there hasn’t been a point where the United States was seeing fewer than 500 people a day die from Covid-19. It’s certainly better than the “another 9/11 every day” level the nation hit in January, but that rate of loss for that long is, or should be, sobering.

Of course, some of the good numbers may be because the United States is coming off a holiday weekend. Testing and reporting isn’t just down—for many states it’s become decidedly erratic. As Republicans rush to strip state and local authorities of their limited authority to do anything about health emergencies, they not just setting up the nation to take an even harder punch the next time there’s a public health crisis, they’re also making it clear they’re absolutely done with this one.

Have no doubt about it: The epidemic is not over in the United States, and the pandemic is certainly not over around the world. In a way, Covid-19 is still raging as badly as ever, it’s just that the target pool is smaller.

On a global level, around half a million new cases of Covid-19 are being reported each day. That number is also down, chiefly because it’s not saddled with the peak numbers that came from the U.S. (300,000 cases a day in the first week of January) and the recent surge in India (400,000 cases a day in the first week of May). But there are some very frightening trends out there.Cases in Brazil are actually back to near their all-time high and closing on 100,000 cases a day (though it’s likely Brazil actually saw numbers twice that rate earlier in the year, but simply had inadequate testing). Multiple South and Central American countries—like Argentina, Columbia, and Costa Rica—are at or near all time highs. Meanwhile in Asia, countries like Thailand that seemed to have made it through the pandemic as models of case management are seeing new waves.

Protestors hold a sign in support of public mask requirements to reduce the spread of the SARS2 coronavirus. Photo: GoToVanFollow/Flickr

Covid-19 is still out there at a level that makes it an enormous ongoing threat, the World Health Organization (WHO) isn’t anywhere close to declaring the pandemic over, and as much as everyone enjoyed treating Memorial Day weekend like Memorial Day weekend, the truth is that we still need to be exceedingly careful because while right now things look like March 2020, two weeks from now could very easily look like April 2020. Or worse.

That’s because vaccination rates in the United States have barely edged 50% of the total population. That number turns out to be enough to drive down the case count of Covid-19 in the face of a growing number of states that have dropped essentially all efforts to combat the disease, but it doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination mean we are safe. There are tens of millions of Americans—adults and children—who remain unvaccinated. For those people, the pandemic is powering on.

That’s why President Joe Biden has announced a goal of getting 70% of the public vaccinated by July 4. The plan to make this happen includes a number of measures aimed at making vaccine availability ubiquitous, with a deliberate outreach to rural communities. Biden is also supportive of programs—whether it’s baseball tickets or free beer—that encourage more people to show up and get a jab.

However, unlike the earlier goals for vaccination that Biden set and then exceeded, getting across this hurdle is going to be a tough one. To see why, look no further than the “director of corporate risk” for a large hospital who is featured in this USA Today article (which, unfortunately, appears to require a subscription).

The director—Bob Neavens, formerly of Houston Methodist Medical Center and soon to be a conservative hero—was fired when he was one of two people in leadership positions who refused to take a vaccine after the hospital made it mandatory. In defending himself, Neavens repeats the right-wing talking point about about forcing people to take an “experimental vaccine.” That’s almost to be expected considering how many times Tucker Carlson et. al. have delivered this point through Fox News injection.

However, Neavens also hits on another point that is maddening both for its familiarity and its internal contradictions. According to Neavens, he doesn’t need the vaccine because he already caught Covid-19 while hiking in Hawaii. In 2019. He’s certainly not alone in claiming that he had the disease months before it reached the United States. But his stubborn belief that he knows more than the WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combined is capped because he took an antibody test and it came back negative. Still, says Neavens, “There’s no way anybody could tell me what I had was the flu.”

Just to run through this again: This man worked in a hospital as a risk manager, and is so fixated on a myth he’s created for himself that he refused to believe not just every major health organization, but a test on his own blood. And despite that test not showing any antibodies, he’s still convinced that he doesn’t need a vaccine because he’s somehow protected against Covid-19.

That’s what Biden is up against. Times 150 million.

As The Washington Post made clear last week, there remains an “unseen risk” to the unvaccinated. While the overall rate of Covid-19 cases has dropped dramatically, the cases that remain are occurring almost entirely in one specific slice of the population—the slice that has refused vaccination. When that’s accounted for, there are areas where the rate of cases, and deaths, remains as high as ever. Only the way the disease continues to rage is masked by the fact that the 169 million Americans who haven’t received at least one dose of vaccine are not getting it.

How bad is it?

… adjustments for vaccinations show the rate among susceptible, unvaccinated people is 73 percent higher than the standard figures being publicized. With that adjustment, the national death rate is roughly the same as it was two months ago and is barely inching down. The adjusted hospitalization rate is as high as it was three months ago.

Covid-19 is still raging. It’s just raging within the unvaccinated. That may seem like karma, but it’s definitely a threat to those who can’t be vaccinated for legitimate reasons, including children under the age of 12. And it creates an embedded threat to everything from the economy to health care to the national infrastructure that won’t be eliminated … unless President Biden can once again exceed a very difficult goal.