Here are my current thoughts on the pandemic.

And, why vaccinated people are still wearing masks everywhere

A few weeks ago, the Atlantic ran an article by Alexis C. Madrigal, who caught Coronavirus even though he was vaccinated. I don’t like to shit on other writers, but his spot exhausted me.

Madrigal, I gather from his many writings, is the sort of educated liberal who has been taking the pandemic seriously from day one. Good on him. He’s been doing all the right things to keep his family and community safe, and if more people were like him and fewer like my vaccine-denying cousin in Tennessee, America would be in better control of COVID.

And yet, Madrigal’s missive was a near-satire of itself, filled with the sort of progressive self-flagellation promulgated in recent days by sources like the Atlantic and NPR—sources I otherwise hold in high regard.

Madrigal’s friends invited him to a New Orleans wedding. He dawdled and delayed replying, so heavy was COVID on his heart, even though he loves New Orleans. He had conversations with his wife that I imagine, in his mind, were second in gravity only to the Yalta Conference. Finally, after weighing whether to fly through Las Vegas (where he might have a long layover and risk COVID exposure) he went.

He got breakthrough COVID. He didn’t get very sick, but bewailed the disruption and dismay it caused others. How could he be so selfish? So stupid? He isolated for ten days and pulled his kids from school. He called elderly people with whom he had come into contact. Of course, he acknowledged his privileges—every progressive writer has to raise a glass to those who cannot, or have not, or face worse.

But, observe the pain he caused others with his selfish decision to attend a wedding! The logistical pain! His children made him a pariah and gave him the fish eye.

Are not all vaccinated people having the same conversations about opening back up? Visiting friends? Returning to our favorite cities? Let this be a lesson for us all!

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The essay reminded me of the old Sweet Pickles book, The Very Worried Walrus. A pig offers Walrus a bicycle, but Walrus goes through a parade of horribles that might occur if he rides it and wrecks. After pages and pages of worrying, he gets on the bike… and promptly crashes. Then, nothing further happens.

In Madrigal’s version, he crashes but then insists upon the horribles, even though his vaccine did exactly what scientists designed it to do: kept him from getting sick from COVID so he could worry less if he caught it at an important life moment. He did not go to a hospital or overwhelm exhausted nurses. By vaccinating, he did what was right by himself, his family, and his community.

Still, he indulged in an annoying, navel-gazing mea culpa, because liberals apparently can’t beg enough forgiveness for the burdens they place on society while conservatives retrofit their cars to belch black smoke.

A Pandemic of the Unvaccinated

Epidemiologists are asking us not to call what remains of the pandemic a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” so as not to stigmatize unvaccinated people. Yet, unvaccinated people are 17 more likely to land in a hospital with COVID than vaccinated people.

Alexis Madrigal, isolating himself and refusing to hug his children for ten days, is not and has never been the issue.

Here’s the problem, to the best of my understanding:

  • Emergency wards and hospitals have a limited number of beds, the result of hospital cutbacks and government pressure over the past decades.

  • Over 97% of people who develop COVID recover.

  • BUT, only a tiny number of a population have to develop severe COVID to overwhelm hospitals and health care systems and exhaust staff.

  • AND, almost all the people overwhelming the system are unvaccinated.

So, the greatest sin a vaccinated person is capable of is getting a breakthrough infection and

  1. Passing it to an unvaccinated person, who will burden hospitals or pass it to other unvaccinated people who will burden hospitals; or

  2. Passing it to other vaccinated people, who will eventually pass it to an unvaccinated person as above.

The sin is keeping COVID alive in the community.

So, we vaccinate, and we mask. We want to limit community spread not because we care about people who won’t vaccinate, but because we care about the people the unvaccinated impact—caregivers, kids of single moms, and so on.

What are we waiting for?

Madrigal isn’t totally wrong: we do have a responsibility to our communities as much as to ourselves, and we must continue to be cautious.

If everyone were like him and performed an antigen test at the first sign of illness, then removed themselves from society until they tested negative instead of going to work, we would be fine. Hell, we’d be a better society if we stayed at home until we were over our common colds and flus, too.

But, Americans won’t do that. They’ll go to work so they can use sick time to play, and they’ll get on airplanes sick rather than miss vacation.

And, I wonder if those of us who believe the science and see the virtues of vaccines aren’t also asking the impossible of vaccines, as Madrigal’s Atlantic colleague Katherine Wu writes. If we’re waiting for a vaccine to give us perfect, sterilizing immunity—when we will never be at risk and never be a risk to others—we will never again leave our houses.

COVID will become endemic, like the flu or the common cold. The trick will be keeping endemic levels low enough that sick people don’t overrun hospitals.

Vaccines should allow us to move through life—going to restaurants, weddings, bars, vacations, and family gatherings—with an acceptable risk profile. This is especially the case while in the company of other vaccinated people.

If we still get breakthrough COVID? Stay at home, eat soup - whatever. You aren’t the problem, and you’ll likely be just fine. If you pass your breakthrough COVID to an unvaccinated person, who then kills her grandma and gives a nurse a nervous breakdown?

That is not your fault, no matter how awful.

The problem, the guilt, and the blame rests on the shoulders of people who could have done something but did not—who deny the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and who have families who curse nurses and doctors for their inability to save their loved ones’ lives when it is too late.

I appreciate the mask wearing and vaccinating in order to keep community spread to a minimum, and to respect our delicate health care system and frontline workers. I also feel we must weigh these commitments alongside the benefits of reopening and re-engaging with society and family if we have done the right thing by getting vaccinated. While Madrigal retains a lockdown mindset, I lean toward reopening.

It isn’t selfish. With only rare exception, selfish is not getting the vaccine.

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