Good News re: COVID-19 (in the U.S.A.)

by Glenn on June 11, 2021

Good news continues to flow in on the COVID-19 front here in The United States. As of Tuesday, June 8, 2021, hospitalizations across the country are down to 16,835 and 171,731,584 Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says the news “is even better than you’ve heard.”

He writes that “80 to 85 percent of American adults are immune to the virus: More than 64% have received at least one vaccine dose and, of those who haven’t, roughly half have natural immunity from prior infection.”

Obviously, eradication of the disease would be even better but, “With more than 8 in 10 adults protected from either contracting or transmitting the virus it can’t readily propagate by jumping around in the population.” This is what is referred to as herd immunity. This “should speed up the timeline for returning fully to normal.”

If natural immunity is not factored in, then “we are far from Anthony Fauci’s stated target of 70% to 85% of the population becoming immune through full vaccination. But,” Mackary continues, “the effect of natural immunity is all around us” as evidenced in “plummeting case numbers.”

The really good news is for those who have been infected. Now, this is an opinion piece, but Dr. Mackary points out, “After treating Covid for 16 months, we haven’t seen significant incidence of re-infection.”

One question he takes on: “Should the previously infected be vaccinated?” His “clinical advice to healthy patients with natural immunity is that one shot is sufficient, and maybe not even necessary, although it could increase the long-term durability of immunity.”

Those who have had the infection but haven’t been vaccinated are in kind of a strange status. You’re probably safe for a time from re-infection or infecting others, but you’re not in the category of people who are told they no longer need masks. This article is helpful information for those thinking through this issue.

Related to this topic, on Sunday afternoon I finished a phenomenal book, The Premonition by Michael Lewis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021).

If you haven’t read any of Lewis’ books, it’s likely you’ve seen one of the movies based on them, Moneyball or The Blind Side. (The books are ALWAYS better than the movies.) He writes so well you can hardly help yourself but continue reading.

Side note: There is a blurb on the dust jacket of The Premonition offering “Praise for Michael Lewis.” In a piece for New York Times Book Review, John Williams wrote, “I would read an 800-page history of the stapler if he wrote it.” That’s about right.

This book reads like a thriller, but it is a work of non-fiction. It is about COVID-19, but it begins back in the administration of President George W. Bush.

The story goes that Mr. Bush went on a vacation in 2005 and read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza (New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2018). It scared Mr. Bush who convened a group in The White House to gauge preparedness for an outbreak of a disease as deadly as the Spanish Flu of 1918. The result was a group of people got together in the Bush years to create a plan.

The book tells the story of close calls—the swine influenza outbreak of 2009 figures prominently in the story. It is called “the pandemic that wasn’t.” Drug-resistant tuberculosis is also part of this story. This is pretty alarming, to say the least. And one thing you learn along the way is that public health officials have a lot of power and a lot of responsibility when it comes to dealing with deadly infections. It feels like a bit of a no-win for them. If they don’t react, people could die. But if they do impose sanctions, then they are taking away freedoms.

The Premonition is not what I expected. I thought somehow it would be about the people we hear in the news all the time. But the most important people in the fight against COVID-19 were people I had never heard of. It’s inspiring to read about these individuals who are so smart and so concerned about solving problems. The CDC features in the story, but they are almost a distraction from and for the protagonists.

Lewis’ book answers some of the questions I’ve had. For example, Where did this idea of “social distancing” come from? The answer is there is “no difference between giving a person a vaccine and removing him or her from the social network.” Makes sense.

Another question: Why close the schools? When you are modeling the spread of disease, “One intervention was not like the others . . . when you closed schools and put social distance between kids, the flu-like disease fell off a cliff.” (It doesn’t come out in the book, but as it turns out, with COVID-19 this wasn’t that important of an intervention.)

There’s a great analogy in the book. When it comes to pandemics, there is no one thing that you can do that works. An intervention is like a piece of Swiss cheese. You need multiple interventions. If you layer enough pieces of Swiss cheese interventions on top of each other, now you have the ability to prevent things.

We learn the importance of the early moments when you’re dealing with communicable disease. One California public health official who figured prominently in this story says “ninety percent of the battle is in the first few days.” (The book doesn’t say outright, but it seems like we didn’t get on it early enough in this country. By the time we locked things down, it was too late and “The problem with implementing [social interventions] too late is you get all the downsides and little benefit, so speed is critical.”)

Another character in this story, Carter Mecher, offers an analogy: “Managing a pandemic was like driving a weird car that only accelerated, or braked, fifteen seconds after you hit the pedal. ‘Or think of looking at a star. It’s the same thing. The light you see is from years ago. When you are looking at a disease, the disease you are seeing is from last week.’”

COVID-19 has a couple of weird characteristics. One thing, for which we can be grateful, it is a disease that spreads quite easily, but it isn’t as dangerous as, say, Ebola. (Though certainly not without consequences for the nearly 600,000 who have died in this country and their grieving families.)

Another characteristic, most people didn’t pass the disease along. But there were “super-spreaders” who “played an outsized role in the spread of the disease.”

I’ll stop with the takeaways. I couldn’t put The Premonition down.