Yesterday, the US posted its highest-ever total of COVID cases. It’s one thing to break a record by a razor thin margin– like the S&P 500 has been doing, edging up by a fraction of a percent- but it’s one thing to smash the record altogether. The global record, too, was smashed– at around 1.6 million cases, versus the US’ 465,000 cases. With high rates of vaccinations in many places and the probably milder– though more infectious- omicron variant, does this mean COVID is about to be C-over? Or, does it mean that it’s going to disproportionately screw people in deep red parts of the country, where vaccination rates are low because “muh freedom”?
My future father-in-law, for example, was dragged kicking and screaming (as it were– he’s frankly not the type to kick or scream) to get the vaccine, which he did. But he has declined the booster. This may or may not actually matter for exposure to omicron. But what troubles me about talking to him is that he’s convinced that the whole thing is overblown. He doesn’t believe family friends who say that their emergency rooms are overwhelmed with seriously ill patients. He thinks that the death numbers are inflated. He won’t talk about where he actually gets his news, but suffice it to say that Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are too mainstream for him.
It’s a classic phenomenon in the post-truth age of disinformation, and Walter refuses to make the connection between him demonizing the lying liberal media (of which his future son-in-law is a member) and the media getting beaten up by Congressional candidates— the kind that he then votes for. But with an increasingly stark correlation between the politics of a place and its death rate from COVID, it leaves us to wonder what the next Friedman Unit of the pandemic is going to look like for these rural, unvaxxed, anti-information, pro-Trump areas of the country.
We can take an educated guess based on preliminary data from San Francisco, for example, that rates of serious illness in highly vaccinated people are going to be much lower compared to early, pre-vax pandemic. But the more infectious variant means that people are either going to have to be even more careful or are far more likely to get sick. While there’s still a lot of disinformation about 5G chips and baby-eating Democrats pushing the vaccine to inject children with lizard DNA or whatever, there’s also plenty of media spin from either side. Panic sells, of course. This article, for example, refers to hospitalizations “soaring,” even though data out of New York show that the hospitalization rate now is about a third of what it was at its January 2021 peak.
It’s not clear that this trend will continue. But it’s also not clear that policymakers are ready to try another more aggressive approach to lockdown measures. Anecdotally, the folks I personally know who have gotten omicron– dozens in the past week alone- say they feel anywhere ranging from “terrible, but functional” to having barely noticeable symptoms. This is at least comforting to me at a personal level– but it seems reasonably backed up by data.
The problem, then, is that the rural areas– which have seen drastically death rates in 2021 as anti-vaxxers get seriously ill- also lack the same density of medical resources. While this is perhaps not rocket science, the problem was observed as early as April 2020, well before many rural areas had even seen their first covid case. Not only is it a question about the total number or capacity of ICU beds, it’s also about people being able to get to them. And elective surgery? Well, if you’re not actively bleeding out– and, in some grossly underserved areas, even if you are bleeding out- you’re probably not going to be able to get access to medicine.
I’m searching for sympathy for these unvaccinated folks who are dying in large numbers. I’m not finding a whole lot of it, except that I guess I feel a bit bad for all of these people who drank the Kool Aid and really shouldn’t have. As Trump himself said, of COVID deaths, though: “it is what it is.” That doesn’t mean there can’t be a federal strategy, though. Nor does it mean that a federal strategy has to be just doling out exorbitant courses of Regeneron to people who refused to get the shot. Suffice it to say, this thing can still cause a whole lot of misery, disruption, and destruction– so, while we aren’t out of the woods, we have a lot more evidence about how this new variant operates. Evidence that I hope will lead most of you to not go out to raucous NYE parties in Kentucky, like one of my housemates. Anyway. Stay masked, folks!