Omicron Variant Meets Our Public-Policy Mess

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The best hope for Omicron goes like this: If it spreads more easily, big deal. The virus is already everywhere. If it’s also milder, hooray. This is the thing that matters now. As it spreads to the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, let’s protect the most vulnerable while accepting that Omicron will boost population resistance and contribute to reducing Covid to a mostly non-life-threatening nuisance.

In this phase of the pandemic, think of hospitalizations as the residual. The virus is in a race with immunity. If one gets a little ahead of the other, hospitalizations increase or decrease. And adjust, of course, for the fact that vaccination in this race is worth approximately 65 times as much in a person over 65 than in a person under 30 in terms of preventing death.

Bottom line: It’s tragic when somebody dies needlessly because they are unvaccinated; an exceedingly fast-spreading variant, even if milder, could gobble up the remaining such vulnerable people in a hurry and deposit them in the hospital. But the supply of such victims is running out.

Unfortunately, the picture sold to the public continues to be badly distorted, with consequences that someday will have to be honestly assessed. While the U.S. government now quietly estimates that 146 million Americans had been infected with Covid as of Oct. 2, media outlets are currently trumpeting America’s 50 millionth “confirmed” case as the latest milestone. This cockamamie measure can only appeal to editors because it makes it sound like the virus can still be stopped before it reaches most people.

Its bastard offspring, the case fatality rate, also continues to pop up in the media, with Bloomberg News last week bizarrely trying to outdo China’s Covid chief by forcing on its readers a claim that “the global death rate stands at over 1.9%.”

This needlessly terrorizing estimate is biased twice over, because it ignores infected people who aren’t tested, and because those who seek testing tend to be the sickest and oldest. Oxford University’s Our World in Data, perhaps because its website is frequently consulted by media types, takes pains for the especially thick of head: “There is a straightforward question that most people would like answered. If someone is infected with COVID-19, how likely is that person to die? The key point is that the case fatality rate (CFR)—the most commonly discussed measure—is not the answer to the question.”

In the unvaccinated, Covid is actually less deadly than the flu for the youngest cohort. For the middle-aged and up, Covid can be a killer. Unvaccinated, the death rate for the 55-65 age group is 0.75%, much lower than the Bloomberg estimate but still several times this group’s annual risk in its encounter with the flu.

However, when vaccinated are compared with vaccinated, as most in this age group now are, Covid is significantly less deadly than the flu, thanks to the excellence of our Covid vaccines.

But Covid is also far more widespread. In each of the past 10 years, an average of 8.5% of Americans were sickened with the flu, whereas an estimated 30% had Covid in 2020.

This year, if anything, Covid’s true prevalence is an even bigger mystery. On the one hand, we have the emergence of more-transmissible variants like Delta and Omicron. On the other, vaccination plus prior exposure may mean many more mild and asymptomatic cases are going unnoticed.

By now this hazy picture is especially frustrating to millions of us who know what shots we’ve received but have no way of knowing if we’ve encountered the virus given that so much of the current pandemic may consist of symptomless infection.

What also remains discouraging is the public sector’s perhaps unavoidable but never-ending policy chaos. From the virus’s arrival on our shores, politicians decided it wouldn’t be good for their careers to be seen conceding that it would eventually infect most of the population, even though all understood perfectly well (don’t kid yourself about Dr. Fauci and company) that it was almost inevitable.

A large and continuing exercise in hand waving has been needed to pretend that we were striving to suppress case numbers indiscriminately, though no evidence has suggested that such suppression is achievable except in the very short term at an unsustainable cost.

This pretense is now doubly pointless in the face of more-transmissible variants meeting a more resistant population. Replay the past two years with the government being straightforward with the American people, and emphasizing as a public goal protecting the most vulnerable rather than trying to stop the virus. Every outcome would be different.

Alas, Americans have been stuck adapting to Covid partly by feel while being systematically misled about its true prevalence (higher than they’ve been told) and its death risk (lower than they’ve been told). Which has produced its own residual: more confusion and mistrust than was strictly necessary or inevitable, especially among some who stood to benefit most from the vaccine.

Wonder Land: What we needed most from the Government during Covid’s two long years were mid-course corrections. Instead politicians chose rigidity, such as Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate. Images: AFP via Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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