Public health officials are blaming the new, breakthrough cases of COVID on the emerging delta variant. There’s early evidence that people infected with the delta strain carry about a thousand times the amount of virus that those infected a year and a half ago carried. And now, many people have stories related to the variant. A little more than a week ago, one of my colleagues posted his own cautionary tale in our companywide Slack. He went to Florida to visit family, everyone fully vaccinated—and one by one, most of them were testing positive. It raises some worrying questions: Do we really know what’s going on with delta right now? If you’re vaccinated, are you able to just carry on? Or is the U.S. in the midst of a COVID backslide? To try to work through these dilemmas, I spoke with Slate news director Susan Matthews, who’s been reporting throughout the pandemic, on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: What do we know about the delta variant at this point?
Susan Matthews: So, I think we know that delta is very contagious, more than other variants or the original virus. What I’ve heard doctors suggest is that that when you get infected with delta, it is able to replicate more quickly before your body can mount an immune response. So even if you’re vaccinated, and even if your body is trained at mounting that immune response, which is what you want, the variant is going to be able to replicate faster. So it’s going to make you a little bit sicker than you would be if you were just infected with the original coronavirus strain, which your bolstered immune response would probably take care of before you got sick.
A couple things: There just isn’t very good data about how many breakthrough cases were expected and how many we’re seeing right now. One of the very first things I looked into was what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is doing about this. And the CDC is only tracking breakthrough cases that result in hospitalization or death. I feel like what we don’t know is more than what we actually know.
So you don’t have the data, but you do have these anecdotes—like the story of what happened in Provincetown, Massachusetts, when a whole bunch of people who were out on July 4 got infected—that seem to imply something.
Yeah. I think what we all heard when we were learning about the vaccines early on is that they’re pretty effective. So you may think, “Maybe one person in my group of 10 would get infected if we were exposed to the coronavirus.” But that’s not really how it works, particularly if you’re living your life as you did before: One person gets infected and then it replicates in that person and then, if you’re still all spending time together indoors and unmasked, it’s going to spread again.
The main collective action thing that you still have to do is get vaccinated. But what’s your responsibility in terms of not getting sick at all? I think that whether or not you get sick and what your risk tolerance is—that’s a lot more individual than it is about the population.
You’ve noted something else that I think is really important, which is this disconnect in what an average person might think of as severe disease and what an infectious disease doctor might think of a severe disease.
Our colleague was extremely convinced that he had severe disease—he said he was fully knocked out for about 36 hours. When I talked to Jeremy Faust, a doctor who has written for us, he was like, “That’s mild.” And the thing is, mild COVID is not like a mild cold. It can feel really bad, at a level most of us have never weathered at home. But it’s like how even with the flu shot, you could get flu and have a totally have a horrible experience. Even if you’re not hospitalized, it can feel bad. But it’s still mild COVID. With a mild case, I’m not going to get a fever, I’m not going to get any of these other problems. Vaccination still protects you much more from risk of actual severe COVID and death than not.
The takeaway I had from my reporting is that we need to start to get to a place where we understand there’s going to be some COVID that we live with. That doesn’t mean that we failed—I feel like we have gotten so used to making these calculations that are based on these really catastrophic outcomes if things go wrong. And with the vaccines, we’re limiting the major thing that can go wrong, and we just have to kind of start inching back.
After months of telling Americans that if you get a vaccine, you’ll be able to take off your mask, blue state politicians and others are starting to bring out mandates. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced that public-facing health care workers would be required to get the vaccine. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that state workers and health care employees would need to get the shot or face weekly COVID testing. The city of New York announced a similar program, which will cover police and teachers. Of course, that risks pushback because you’ve seen political backlash like, “Don’t come to my door and ask me about vaccines.”
This is a long-standing theory I have a as a health reporter, that I think polls show some outlandish numbers about how Republicans respond to vaccines. Before there was a pandemic, one of the numbers that I thought was the most fascinating was that for childhood vaccinations, like measles, the numbers have actually been consistent for about the past 20 years: 93 percent of people get shots. If you look at the 7 percent and the reasons for why they don’t get the shot, it’s about half and half between people who are actually anti-vax and people who just don’t have access to health care. And there are groups of people who have really good reasons to distrust the medical establishment in America.
Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.