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Tipsheet

Biden: We Must Protect Vaccinated People from Unvaccinated People

Sweep away the deeply politicized attacks and the often-angry tone, and two lines jumped out at me from President Biden's COVID speech yesterday.  First was his vaccine mandate announcement, which has already prompted a slew of legal threats.  I'm fervently pro-vaccine, as my public commentary and personal actions have made abundantly clear.  I'm also probably more open to certain vaccine mandates and 'passports' than many other conservatives, and strongly support vaccine requirements for people who work with vulnerable populations, such as healthcare workers and long term care facility employees.  These decisions are best determined by businesses and institutions, but governments at various levels do wield relevant powers in this realm -- powers that history demonstrates are enhanced during public health emergencies.

But Biden's new attempt to have the federal government force all private businesses of a certain size to impose a 'vaccine-or-weekly-test' mandate strikes me as unwieldy, rife with potential unintended consequences, extremely difficult to enforce, and a clear abuse of power overall.  Legal scholars are already fighting over the question of underlying authority, and the ink is not yet dry on the forthcoming blizzard of lawsuits and challenges.  For those insisting that this move is totally normal and people are freaking out for no reason, I simply direct them to the words of the president, his top spokesperson, and the director of the CDC -- all of whom have sworn off vaccine mandates:

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On December 4, 2020, Biden said the vaccine would not be imposed by mandate. "No, I don't think it should be mandatory," he said. "I wouldn't demand it be mandatory." Psaki's comments came even more recently, on July 23, 2021. "That's not the role of the federal government," she said when asked about such mandates. "That's the role that institutions, private-sector entities, and others, may take." A week later, on July 31, Walensky corrected a comment she had made that some interpreted as being supportive of a federal mandate. "There will be no nationwide mandate," she said. "I was referring to mandates by private institutions and portions of the federal government. There will be no federal mandate."

Political figures may be incapable of being shamed by their flip-flops and hypocrisy, but these things still matter.  Set aside constitutional questions, just for a moment.  When powerful people repeatedly assure the public that outcome X will not happen, and in fact outcome X is not allowed -- and then they turn around and impose outcome X, public trust and overall credibility are further eroded.  'But Delta!' doesn't apply to the comments made by the White House Press Secretary and top public health official, which came mid-Delta wave.  They can parse and deflect all they want.  They said the feds wouldn't mandate vaccines, and now they're trying to use dubious, sprawling regulatory authority to effectively mandate vaccines, including among tens of millions of private sector workers. My cynical guess is that they've decided that this move will be at least somewhat popular, will start a political brawl that they welcome (especially to turn the page from their Afghanistan debacle), and that having their overreach reined in by the courts will allow them to agitate against another branch of government.  My cynicism runs deep these days, justifiably.  The second line that stood out to me was this one, which the White House is going out of its way to showcase:

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Vaccinated people are protected from unvaccinated people.  The vaccines are the protection, and they work incredibly well.  Yes, there are certain factors at play.  In communities with rampant COVID spread, unvaccinated people have crowded, and occasionally overwhelmed, certain hospitals and ICU units -- and this, in turn, has sometimes impacted care for vaccinated people facing various medical issues and emergencies.  Unvaccinated people's decision not to protect themselves (a very poor one, in my strong opinion) can indeed affect other people, including endangering fellow unvaccinated people through infection.  And yes, there are also 'breakthrough' infections among vaccinated people.  I'm well aware of this, having had one myself (it was tantamount to a short, mild cold).  Data shows that breakthrough cases are overwhelmingly of shorter duration and much less severe than other COVID infections, and are still statistically rare.  This is useful perspective from the New York Times' David Leonhardt:

The C.D.C. reported a terrifying fact in July: Vaccinated people with the Delta variant of the Covid virus carried roughly the same viral load in their noses and throats as unvaccinated people. The news seemed to suggest that even the vaccinated were highly vulnerable to getting infected and passing the virus to others. Sure enough, stories about vaccinated people getting Covid — so-called breakthrough infections — were all around this summer: at a party in Provincetown, Mass.; among the Chicago Cubs; on Capitol Hill. Delta seemed as if it might be changing everything. In recent weeks, however, more data has become available, and it suggests that the true picture is less alarming. Yes, Delta has increased the chances of getting Covid for almost everyone. But if you’re vaccinated, a Covid infection is still uncommon, and those high viral loads are not as worrisome as they initially sounded. How small are the chances of the average vaccinated American contracting Covid? Probably about one in 5,000 per day, and even lower for people who take precautions or live in a highly vaccinated community...in places with many fewer cases — like the Northeast, as well as the Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco areas — the chances are lower, probably less than 1 in 10,000. Here’s one way to think about a one-in-10,000 daily chance: It would take more than three months for the combined risk to reach just 1 percent.
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In other words, COVID infections among fully vaccinated people remain very uncommon, even amid Delta. And those unfortunate enough to lose the 'breakthrough' lottery are very likely to have relatively mild experiences.  One data point after another shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans hospitalized or dying from COVID are unvaccinated:

Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 30, about 99 percent of hospital admissions were among those who hadn’t been fully inoculated, which is defined by the CDC as two weeks after the second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two weeks after Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose jab. As of Aug. 30, a little over 1.6 million Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19 — but only about 0.65 percent of them, or 10,471 patients, were fully vaccinated, the CDC data show...the numbers highlight the vaccine’s effectiveness in warding off serious cases of the virus, even as the highly contagious Delta variant continues to spread across the country, and the same pattern presents itself when analyzing COVID-19 deaths. In the same time period, about 99 percent of the people who lost their lives to COVID-19 were not fully inoculated against the virus, numbers published by the CDC show. Only 2,437 Americans, or 0.92 percent of deaths, were a result of breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated patients.

This is why I'm passionately in favor of the vaccines, even while I feel compelled to call out federal overreach and abuses.  Biden, as is so often the case, is making the wrong case, the wrong way.  I cannot imagine that growling about 'losing patience' with tens of millions of Americans, then framing vaccine mandates as a project to protect...the protected from the unprotected, is helpful or constructive.  He is once again delivering a signal that the vaccines don't really work that well, which is a messaging disaster and a terrible disservice to our public discourse on this critical subject.  I share much of the frustration articulated in this thread:

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Shanker, a doctor, also points out that Biden has still failed to even nominate a new FDA chief.  In the middle of this pandemic.  As some FDA officials have resigned in protest over the unscientific nature of some of his administration's COVID pronouncements.  The speech he gave yesterday did not "meet the moment," as the annoying cliche goes.  But I suspect the point was to look like he's "doing something" as his COVID approval falls, while triggering a massive food fight that will pull attention away from various other failings.  I'll leave you with two fresh pieces of data:

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Kids are effectively vaccinated from COVID, by virtue of their age. This is, again, wonderful and relieving news -- and also matters greatly in determining public policy.  At least it should.  But we seem far too politicized to allow mere science to determine best practices:

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