Analysis: Delta surge drowns out good news as US fights over masks and vaccines

The economy added a better-than-expected 943,000 jobs in July and the unemployment rate dipped to 5.4%, more signs the US is determined and desperate to recover from the pandemic, although those numbers precede some of the recent restrictions on public life that have been enacted in response to the Delta variant.

Which brings us to the impossible-to-ignore bad news. Covid-19 cases have resurged, approaching 100,000 per day, and the seven-day average of US deaths, nearly all of which could have been avoided with a vaccine, exceeds 450.

“Today, about 400 people will die because of the Delta variant in this country. A tragedy, because virtually all of these deaths were preventable if people had gotten vaccinated,” President Joe Biden said Friday at an event that was supposed to tout the jobs numbers.

Tragedy? Yes. Reason to shut down the country again? No. “This is not March 2020, or even January 2021. We’re not going to lock down our economy or our schools because our country’s in a much stronger place than when we took office thanks to the President’s leadership in vaccinating the American people and getting economic relief to those who need it,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday. “We’ve been preparing like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for this moment and the potential that there would be ups and downs in our recovery.”

The tools are there. Use them. The subtext to Psaki’s statement is that the vaccines and masks are there for people to use and even though this surge will affect everyone’s life in the US, it’s not going to shut down the country again.

When will this spike end? The infectious disease researcher Michael Osterholm said the case spike fueled by the Delta variant and the unvaccinated could quickly subside like it did in countries like the United Kingdom and Israel, but it could also spread quickly in Southeastern and Midwestern states, he guessed, perhaps subsiding by September.

“But I can tell you for certain that between now and then, there are going to be many, many more cases that are going to be very ill, that are going to be hospitalized, and unfortunately some die,” Osterholm said on CNN Friday.

As American schoolkids look at returning to the classroom, CNN’s Covid-19 headlines scrolled ominously.

Pictures of a baby — an 11-month-old girl with Covid-19 — being lifted onto an air ambulance to take her 150 miles away because of a shortage of pediatric beds in the Houston area was more evidence that the Delta variant is striking children in new ways.

That hospitals in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana are overwhelmed is not news. That children can’t find ICU beds is a development.

Quarantines for students — More than 900 students and a dozen teachers were exposed as the second week of school comes to an end in Marion, Arkansas, and the district grapples with an outbreak of Covid-19 cases that saw 47 students and eight staff members test positive. The vaccinated — 54 students and five staff members — were able to avoid quarantine.

The same level of transparency isn’t required in every state. In Texas, for instance, only kids who test positive for Covid-19 must quarantine.
The Arkansas district said if it had been able to institute a mask requirement, fewer would have been quarantined. But such a mask requirement is prohibited by the law GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson wishes he had not signed. A county circuit judge temporarily blocked the enforcement of the law on Friday in response to lawsuits filed by a school district and parents.

Covid-19 is entering schools from the community. Gwinnett County Public Schools — Georgia’s largest school system — confirmed on Friday at least 253 cases of Covid-19 for the first three days of classes. It’s a district that does require masks on all campuses.

“Many of the cases are from communal spread because they (people reporting cases of Covid-19) haven’t been in our buildings yet to have contracted it,” said Bernard Watson, director of community and media relations for Gwinnett County Public Schools. “Now that we’re back in school, we know we’re going to get cases.”

Masks work in schools. The spread will stop in school districts that require masks, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a town hall event in Boston Friday.

“We follow every jurisdiction, and we look for outbreaks that are happening in camps and schools,” Walensky said. “The places that are having a problem, the places that are having disease that is transmitted in the schools, are the places that are not taking prevention strategies. The places that aren’t masking, the places where you see kids in the hospital, the places where you see footage of kids in the hospital, are all places that are not taking mitigation strategies to keep our children safe.”

The rules on masks in US schools are all over the map. New Jersey is implementing a statewide mask requirement for schools. Florida is giving parents who feel like their kids are bullied for exercising their personal choice on wearing masks access to a scholarship fund to go to another school.

So why not require teachers to get the shot? Kids under 12 can’t get the vaccine, but their teachers can, although their unions don’t want them to be told to.

“We are looking at all the alternatives, including those kind of requirements,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Friday.

Given the question from CNN’s John Berman was whether she had evolved enough on the issue, it was an artful dodge from the president of one of the largest teachers unions.

She argued that 90% of teachers she represents are vaccinated and they’re looking for ways to encourage the last 10% to get the shot. She also argued the “voluntary approach has actually worked because it also creates long-term trust.”

“We think that the resisters, a lot of it is about combating the bad information and the disinformation about vaccines,” she said, adding that said full approval of the vaccines from the US Food and Drug Administration would mark a point where mandatory vaccination might be acceptable.

Watch this barefoot misinformation superspreader: CNN tracked down Dr. Joseph Mercola, who has been accused by experts who track misinformation, of being one of the major spreaders of Covid-19 vaccination lies. He rejected our interview requests and refused to speak to CNN’s Randi Kaye when she found him, barefoot, shirtless, and in shorts, biking to the beach near his Florida home.

Vaccine requirements are scrambling party lines, placing someone like Weingarten, who is normally allied with Democrats, alongside Sen. Ted Cruz, who is pretty much never allied with Democrats.

“We should have no Covid mandates,” the Texas Republican argued this week. “What does that mean? That means no mask mandates, no vaccine mandates, that means no vaccine passports — we shouldn’t step into a regime where the government says ‘show us your papers’ if you want to do the basic activities of life.”

Although, as CNN’s Berman and Brianna Keilar masterfully pointed out, you need papers to do many aspects of American life, from driving to fishing to getting a job to opening a bank account.
Mandates reach the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has been asked to step in and block a vaccine requirement for in-person students at Indiana University.

CNN’s Ariane de Vogue notes the filing to the court on Friday marks the first time the justices have been asked to weigh in on the issue as private and public entities are increasingly requiring vaccines in the wake of a new surge of the virus caused by the Delta variant.

If they act, it will be the first word from the Supreme Court on a vaccine mandate in more than 100 years.


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