President Joe Biden will be holding a briefing on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic today. He will likely be celebrating the news that, at long last, 70% of the nation’s adult population has received at least one vaccine dose. He’ll also likely try to emphasize to Americans that we are once again in a dire situation because of the abandonment of public masking, continued (mostly Republican) opposition to vaccination, and a new virus variant capable of infecting—though seldom actually sickening—even the vaccinated.
As COVID-19 infections surge through much of the country, regional hospital systems are again reaching the breaking point. The nation again topped 50,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, a level not seen since last winter’s massive surge. Hospital systems in Louisiana, Florida, and other places are at maximum capacity.
Some states are meeting the surge by again ramping up public safety measures. New York City will in September be implementing proof-of-vaccination requirements for indoor dining and gyms, effectively barring the unvaccinated from entering places health experts have identified as seemingly commonplace transmission sites. Around the Bay Area, multiple counties are now bringing back universal public masking requirements.
In the states leading the new pandemic surge, the responses are less aggressive. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has attempted to boost his own political career with relentless opposition to enforced pandemic safety measures: Florida is now topping its all-time pandemic records, becoming a pandemic hotspot accounting for around 20% of all COVID infections in the country. Florida and Texas combined now account for a third of all new pandemic cases; both have Republican governors who quickly seized on Trumpist dismissal of pandemic threats to instead speculate that health officials were trying to take away public “freedoms.”
In Florida and in other new hotspots, Republican officials seem bent on blocking safety measures until a collapse of public systems forces their hand. That doesn’t mean the public should be going along with the rhetoric: If you’re in a region currently experiencing high transmission rates or strained hospital systems, wear a mask in public whether you’re vaccinated or not. You do not want to be a patient left waiting in a hallway after your city’s intensive care units have all been filled. It’s your responsibility to stop that from happening.
Americans who are not currently vaccinated need to get the vaccine now. It’s urgent. Nearly all hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, including rising levels of children who have been exposed to the virus by unvaccinated relatives but are too young to receive the vaccines themselves.
It’s important to understand that we are now back in a pandemic “surge” that is already comparable to the worst of last winter’s record infection rates, is not yet peaking, and which may be spreading faster than in past surges due to the kind of new virus mutations that health experts had warned would be inevitable if the world could not quickly tamp down on the newly emerged threat.
At the same time, the Biden White House is said to be taking the major news networks to task in private over what they see as overly alarmist coverage. Specifically, Politico reports the administration is concerned with overly sensationalized coverage of so-called “breakthrough” infections among vaccinated Americans. Those cases remain vanishingly rare, but have been the subject of breathless Shark Week-style reporting that Biden officials fear is further discouraging holdout Americans from getting the vaccines.
The truth is both more optimistic and less newsworthy: The delta variant does appear to more readily latch on to the already vaccinated than earlier pandemic variants—but those vaccinated Americans may experience such mild symptoms that they don’t even realize they’re sick, and are in almost all cases able to stay out of hospital rooms even if the virus does sicken them. The data worrying health experts is instead more narrowly focused on measured viral loads that suggest vaccinated Americans may be able to spread the virus to others even when they aren’t sick themselves. That’s the reason for new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations asking even vaccinated Americans to wear masks in public spaces in regions experiencing high rates of pandemic spread. It’s not to protect vaccinated Americans—it’s to, once again, slow virus transmission from person to unvaccinated person.
So here we are, then: We’re back in a new crisis, one that could likely have been prevented had vaccine holdouts and preening partisans not insisted that even the unvaccinated be allowed to return to maskless normal despite the still-spreading, still-mutating virus. The White House is not likely to point fingers at those most responsible for sabotaging pandemic safety (that is, Ron DeSantis), but will be reemphasizing the urgency of getting vaccinated and following other safety measures so as to end the new surge as quickly as possible.
They won’t have much help with that. Only days after House Republicans and their staffers made a public show of traipsing through the Senate’s half of the Capitol to protest House-side mask requirements, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham announced that he himself was quarantining with a “mild” breakthrough infection. Graham was on a houseboat party with other senators over the weekend, largely guaranteeing further virus spread.
The insistence on pretending the pandemic is over even as infection rates break new records is not coming only from ill-informed members of the general public. The same demands, along with the new delta variant, are floating through the halls of the U.S. Capitol.