Is My Delta Really Better Than Your Delta?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For much of the pandemic, Britain provided a cautionary tale in how not to manage a crisis. It charted some of the world’s worst death rates, a care home infection fest and a series of policy reversals that sorely tested public trust. Should it now be the country the U.S. looks to as an example of how to live with the delta variant?
And the atmosphere is different — at least circumstantially. Visiting three different east coast towns last week in the U.S., I noticed a resurgence of mask wearing in shops and supermarkets around the time a spate of breakthrough cases were reported in Provincetown and as Washington, D.C. reimposed an indoor mask mandate. New data showing that people who are fully vaccinated could carry as much viral load as unvaccinated people caused the Centers for Disease Control to reverse its previous mask guidance. Meanwhile, back in London, mask-wearing is now voluntary and the country has grown far more relaxed.
Of course, it’s too early to celebrate. The decline in U.K. case numbers could be a felicitous combination of summer vacations and warmer weather that has more people meeting outdoors. One theory is that the Euro soccer tournament drove a surge in cases that then subsided.
It may also be that the government’s repeated message to stay vigilant when restrictions were lifted on July 19 sunk in or that so many were told to isolate by the National Health Service tracing app — the so-called pingdemic — that transmission was naturally suppressed. Many will remember how last summer’s relaxations ended in a surge of cases, deaths and a new lockdown.
If the suppression is artificial and temporary, it’s possible there will be a rise in delta cases in the autumn, or even a new variant of concern. That said, evidence from Scotland and elsewhere showing low rates of hospitalization and death encourage the view that a return to restrictions will not be necessary.
On Wednesday, the government extended the vaccine rollout — or at least the first dose – to teenagers aged 16 and 17, which should help reduce transmission once schools resume. It was also confident enough to open more travel destinations to the quarantine-free “green” list Thursday.
The U.K. numbers will be closely watched by the U.S., which opened up much earlier. Delta outbreaks began later than Britain’s and are growing, especially in places like Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. Infection levels in the U.S. were up seven-fold from June to the end of July and are now higher than the April 2020 surge.
While hospitalizations are still below the average in early January by over 57%, they rose by nearly 43% from the week of July 19, with most Covid patients unvaccinated. Florida, which has widely available vaccines, has more people in hospitals than even its 2020 record.
The effort to contain the delta virus in the U.S. faces several additional obstacles. While Britain has fully vaccinated over 73% of the adult population, the U.S. has only managed 58% despite the wide availability of vaccines. President Joe Biden just reached his goal of 70% of eligible people receiving at least one shot. He had celebrated the initial mask-free declaration in May, and then almost declared victory against the virus on July 4. He has since struck a more sober note.
Not only is there more vaccine hesitancy but there are larger clusters of unvaccinated Americans, which favors transmission. Britain has had its share of debates over masking and other restrictions, but there is broad public support for the government’s measures, even as restrictions dragged on into July.
The virus debate in the U.S. is visceral. A statistical model, developed by the Economist, which has joined up with YouGov to collect weekly surveys on vaccine intent, showed that the single biggest predictor of whether an American has been vaccinated is whether they voted for Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Biden’s supporters had an 18 point advantage in likelihood to get a jab. That’s despite the fact that plenty of prominent Republicans have been urging vaccination uptake.
If persuasion – including lotteries and outright payments — doesn’t work, there will likely be as much coercion as the law permits. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that proof of vaccination will be required for various indoor activities. Biden has required all federal employees and contractors – some 4 million workers – to show they’ve been vaccinated or else submit to weekly testing, mask-wearing at work and social distancing. Ultimately, I suspect such measures will only go so far given deeply engrained resistance among many Americans to diktat. It will probably take much greater engagement within local communities to change mindsets on the virus.
Like an Olympic contest, this pandemic has a way of making a mockery of front-runners and those out to prove a point. The U.K. has had its share of setbacks. It may just be setting the pace for a change.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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