By Peter VAN BUREN
It was never just a mask, it has always been a way of thinking. "Mask" is just shorthand.
I got fired from my volunteer work at the Hawaiian Humane Society for choosing not to wear a mask outside walking their dogs. Neither science, the CDC nor the state requires a mask outdoors and I'm fully vaccinated. Some minimum-wage staffbot saw my naked face and informed me of their "policy." I asked why they had such a nonsensical policy, and her only answer was "it is our policy." The conversation ended like an ever-growing percentage of conversations in America now end, with her saying "Do I need to call security?" I didn't enjoy it but I think she did.
It made me sad because I was doing something that was just good. I liked the big dogs, the lifers, the ones some other volunteers shied away from, and having brought one abused dog back from the edge in my home, had some small connection with the damaged ones at the shelter, too.
I was left with no good to do this week, and a simple, real COVID question. Why are fully vaccinated people treated the same as the unvaccinated? Everyone on the plane wears a mask and goes through the same mock social distancing. Everyone at a restaurant, office, concert, etc. does the same. The answer lies at the core of whether public policy in America will shift and allow us to crawl back into our lives.
The first answer, how can we know if someone has been vaccinated, is a strawman. Vaccinated people have little CDC cards. If they have no security features to prevent McLovin fakes, the CDC can create new cards and mail them to us; we had to give out all that info to get the shots. Why not have a database? We have NSA databases of all our emails, an international database of no-flys, Ohio can check if a Minnesota driver's license is valid, and so forth. But vaccine status is somehow the third rail of privacy?
Or is COVID different? When children register for school, they prove their mandatory childhood vaccinations with little cards. My kids, born abroad, effortlessly proved their vaccination status in Virginia with cards issued in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. As an adult, you take me at my word I'm not carrying smallpox and have been vaccinated against measles, no card even needed.
The biggest reason for treating vaxxed and unvaxxed people the same miserable way is the claim that vaccinated people can still get COVID enough to pass it on. Funny thing is you can actually "get" the measles even after being vaccinated. That vaccine works by basically weakening the virus to the point where it does little harm but still exists. The vax is actually only 97 percent effective, similar to the COVID ones. But nobody talks about measles or demands we wear a mask to prevent their spread. We simply accept and deal with the risk, to include vaccination.
The next question is really, really hard to find an answer to. Exactly how many vaccinated people actually get COVID, the so-called "breakthrough" cases? That exact number is critical because it is the pivot point for the risk vs. gain decision our society needs to make. If we cannot make a wise choice we will be struggling with and fighting over the restrictions on our lives and livelihoods forever. If we assume we'll never have full vaccination and that breakthrough cases are a non-zero number and likely always will be then we need to make an informed decision about risk. So is it a non-zero number like "smoking causes cancer" or a non-zero number like "very few people die from meteor strikes (or from the measles.)"
The current public policy decisions on risk are haphazard. All 50 states have different rules, many large cities, too, and each and every company. There are different rules if you take a bus or want to go dancing. One grocery store demands masks, another does not. It makes no sense. It becomes not a considered decision but an example of lack of public policy leadership. Into that leadership void enters superstition, pseudo-science, politics, voodoo, and most of all, fear.
So what are the chances of a fully vaccinated person getting a breakthrough infection? It turns out this pivotal question is not clearly answerable but we act as if it is, with consequences for our lives, our mental health, education, commerce, and more. Even for our stray dogs.
I started with Google and "What are the chances of getting COVID after being fully vaccinated?" expecting the answer in 0.0039 seconds like when you ask what year some historical event happened. Nope. The response from AARP said "less than one percent of fully vaccinated individuals have been hospitalized with, or have died from, COVID." That's a small number but does not fully address the question.
Over to NPR, which reports "On rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others." What does rare occasions mean? This is supposed to be, you know, science, so we finally get some numbers from the CDC: out of 159 million fully vaccinated people, the CDC documented 5,914 cases of fully vaccinated people who were hospitalized or died from COVID, and 75 percent of them were over age 65. That means only 0.0000037 percent of vaxxed people were hospitalized or died, and most of them were elderly. That is a very small number. It is a lot less than one percent and a lot less than rare. Chances of dying in a car wreck are many tens of thousands of times higher and we drive on.
It still however does not answer the question of how dangerous the vaxxed but unmasked are in terms of transmitting the virus. No one really knows. Recent scare headlines calling for reinstated restrictions and vax mandates are based on a single outbreak, 469 cases, in one city in Massachusetts, that appears to show (at variance with existing studies) 75 percent of those infected had been vaccinated and oddly, almost all of those people (87 percent) were male. Most of the infected were asymptomatic or experienced mild symptoms. No deaths.
What is believed is the a) delta variant of COVID makes a b) temporary home inside a vaccinated man's nose or upper respiratory area, c) outside the immune system. It waits there to be d) blown out and then be e) received by an f) unvaccinated person. So all of these multiple things have to go "right" for it to matter. It is not simply a matter of toting up how many vaccinated people tested positive and then hitting the panic button. As one doctor put it "We really need to shift toward a goal of preventing serious disease and disability and medical consequences, and not worry about every virus detected in somebody's nose."
Requiring everyone to wear masks again based on one outbreak that appears related to gender may seem as if it can't hurt, but it does. Organizations waste time and credibility enforcing measures that have limited if any impact (and consider how many masks are old, dirty, improperly worn, etc. to be fully useless.) To simply dismiss the reality of numbers with a blithe "well you can't be too careful" only works if you imagine COVID restrictions have no secondary or tertiary effects.
Via layers of Keystone Kops political gestures, entire cities' economies have been devastated, with no clear end point for those dependent on renting office space or tourism. Education has near-disappeared for large numbers of kids. Despair grows menacingly. Economic inequality got a booster shot. The power of government has grown in ways that make the post-9/11 shenanigans look like amateur efforts. The ability to shape how we live, shop, work, and eat has been handed randomly to a near-endless range of actors, from the president to governors empowered with "emergency edicts" to flight attendants who can prevent you from seeing grandma in Florida to minimum wage store clerks ever-anxious to call security not on shoplifters but on an exposed nose.
Convincing Americans to set aside their irrational fears is no longer impossible. Those fears were created by politicians and the media, and have become a profit center. The Little Hitlers on the plane are unwilling to return to just serving drinks when they tasted power over lives. The NYT for months ran columns saying Trump's vaccine was another government syphilis experiment. Vice President Harris refused to take the shot during the campaign. Biden took it, said it worked, then went right on masking as if it didn't work. It was a very successful organized campaign to propagate uncertainty for a political purpose. Following the election, many right wing media outlets pivoted to pick up a version of the song. It is all their fault vaccine acceptance varies by political party, where we live, and how much education we have. No other country suffers this additional burden to a return to normal.
So we won't concede the reality kids are unlikely to get sick and should go to school. That the vast majority of deaths occur among the elderly with comorbidities not the general population. That ill-fitting masks and wiping down groceries with Clorox are theatre. That the debate has become a political argument instead of an evidence-based one. That the CDC has lost credibility until one side needs it for some partisan purpose. That previously healthcare decisions started with the premise of "first, do no harm" while today there is no conversation allowed about the balance of benefits and harm. That we simply tally the collateral damage while the virus remains unaffected. That if we are to heal as a society there is only one answer: at some point we must simply ask what works.
We lack the political leadership to say what's true so we're going back to "let's just argue about masks." Meanwhile the virus continues to find unvaccinated hosts. The economy won't snap back. Biden is facing a mini-civil war over mandates or restarting lockdowns and has no plan. Things will hit the fan in September as Hot Vax Summer sputters, when every school district does something different, and Federal unemployment supplements run out. People have grown weary of being afraid, and grown weary of being subject to the paranoid demands of safety fetishists. Many did what they were told to do - get vaxxed - only to find themselves stuck inside the same dysfunctional loop. Gonna be some angry folks looking for better answers than their leaders have given to date. So tell us how this ends, Joe.