DANIEL VAUGHAN: The false delta variant freakout

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column criticizing the Los Angeles County Health Department and its political leadership for re-instituting an outdoor mask mandate amid concerns over COVID-19.

The reasoning was pretty simple: Mask mandates discourage people from getting the vaccine, because the clear implication is that vaccines don’t work. Why else would you need something like a mask, which is far less effective than a vaccine?

While that order was dumb, it was at least localized to one county of a single state. But now, the same idiocy has spread to the entire CDC, which has reissued guidelines saying that those who are vaccinated should wear masks in certain situations.

Like the L.A. County orders before it, the Centers for Disease Control guidelines result from panic by bureaucrats, not from any science or rigorous statistical analysis.

To issue such a change, you’d expect the CDC to be relying on sound evidence. But they aren’t doing that; they’re basing this decision on outlier cases and extrapolating from there.

The first study the CDC used was one out of India. Researchers there looked at 100 health care workers vaccinated with an Indian vaccine. They asked what breakthrough infections looked like with them.

That study suggested that some health care workers who were vaccinated had viral loads similar to those who haven’t been inoculated for COVID-19. Theoretically, this meant the vaccinated could transmit the coronavirus disease just as easily as the unvaccinated. 

If you’re a public health expert in India, this is a critical study. But if you’re an American, this study has uncertain value.

First off, these were health care workers in hospitals and similar settings. These places are far more likely to have higher rates of exposure to COVID-19, which the average person is not going to encounter.

And secondly, the Indian study says nothing about how COVID-19 — of any variant — interacts with people who have received any vaccine in America, the United Kingdom, or Israel. The vaccines available in those three countries are made by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson. So while the Indian study is noteworthy, it cannot determine public health policy for those three countries, because we don’t use the Indian vaccine.

The second study the CDC relied upon to make their latest determination involves the town of Provincetown, Massachusetts.

According to ABC News, “from July 3-17, investigators identified 469 COVID-19 cases, two-thirds of which were in fully vaccinated people. The delta variant was responsible for 90% of those cases.”

The town manager of Provincetown pushed back against the study and its descriptions, saying in a series of tweets:

The vaccines are working. Of the 900 cases related to the Provincetown cluster, there have been no deaths, 7 hospitalizations, and the symptoms are largely mild. Our positivity peaked at 15% on 7/15 and was only 4.8% yesterday. The outbreak is contained and Provincetown is safe.

Indoor masking is helpful during a spike but not a sustainable long term solution. Vaccination is. More and more businesses here are mandating employee and customer vaccination.

There have been a total of 220 cases among Provincetown residents, and there are currently only 103 active cases here. More people are recovering each day than testing positive.

Peer-reviewed studies out of Israel pushed back on the CDC’s panic move, too. While we’re still studying the delta variant, those studies found that vaccines are “81% effective at preventing SARS-CoV-2 infections,” according to Nature. “And vaccinated people who do get infected are up to 78% less likely to spread the virus to household members than are unvaccinated people.”

The surge in cases we’ve seen in India (where this strain originated) and the United Kingdom (which has a similar vaccination profile to America) are already seeing cases plummet dramatically. And more importantly, the delta surge did not lead to skyrocketing hospitalizations or deaths like previous surges, showing that vaccinations and herd immunity are decoupling cases from hospitalizations and deaths, making cases a less meaningful metric.

The truth of the situation is very easily understood. The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed provided the United States — and the world — with the most profoundly successful public health initiative in history, providing a cure to a pandemic in 10 months. The Biden administration hasn’t kept up the momentum of Operation Warp Speed. However, vaccines are still available to all Americans.

Panicky bureaucrats who aren’t used to public attention are failing the moment yet again. But the actual science and the hard statistics tell a remarkable success story. Nearly 165 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and the CDC is only reporting 6,587 breakthrough cases among the vaccinated. For those doing the math at home, that means that breakthroughs are occurring with 0.00004% of cases. And that’s rounding up.

Put another way, the vaccines are 99.99996% effective.

Not even your hand sanitizer can claim that. The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed is saving the world. The data proves it.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration and its CDC are panicking over outlier studies. As a result, they are undermining the success of the vaccination program. But as long as Americans continue getting vaccinated, they can ignore this panic and poor leadership.