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The Pandemic Is Not Over: Science Writer Ed Yong on Delta’s Devastation in Low-Vaccination States

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COVID-19 cases in the United States have tripled over the past month as the highly contagious Delta variant rapidly spreads across the country, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates. Deaths from COVID-19 have increased by nearly 50% over the past week, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the Delta variant is now responsible for 83% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. “Things are much worse than people might realize,” says Ed Yong, science writer at The Atlantic who has been reporting on the Delta variant’s spread in Missouri, one of the hardest-hit areas in the U.S. “The more we let this pandemic linger on, rage on around the world, the less protected any of us will be — including those of us who currently luxuriate under the umbrella of vaccination.” Yong recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his coverage of the pandemic.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In the United States, COVID-19 cases have tripled over the past month as the highly contagious Delta variant rapidly spreads across the country, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates. COVID deaths have increased by nearly 50% over the past week, and cases are rising in all 50 states. The Centers for Disease Control says the Delta variant is now responsible for 83% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. This is CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: There is a clear message that is coming through: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

AMY GOODMAN: While the overall COVID numbers are far lower than last winter, public health experts fear the nation’s fight against the pandemic is heading in the wrong direction. On Monday, President Biden urged everyone eligible to get vaccinated.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If you’re unvaccinated, you are not protected. So, please, please get vaccinated. Get vaccinated now. It works. It’s safe. It’s free. It’s convenient.

AMY GOODMAN: New federal data released today shows life expectancy in the United States dropped by a year and a half in 2020 due to the pandemic, the largest drop since World War II. Black and Latinx communities saw the largest declines.

Meanwhile, COVID cases are also surging across the globe. Indonesia has recorded over a thousand deaths a day for the past five days. In France, the number of new cases has jumped by 150% over the last week. South Korea and Thailand have both reported record numbers of new infections

We’re joined now by Ed Yong, science writer at The Atlantic. He recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his coverage of the pandemic. His most recent piece is tilted “Delta Is Driving a Wedge Through Missouri.”

Ed, congratulations on your Pulitzer. This piece is so important. As people hail the end of the pandemic, you’re diving right into the pandemic right now in one — looking at one state, looking at Missouri. Tell us what you found.

ED YONG: So, I talked to folks who work in Southwest Missouri, which is really the epicenter of this current surge. And, you know, things are bad. I think things are much worse than people might realize. One of the major hospitals in Springfield acquired as many cases in just five weeks as it previously did in five months, a testament to how quickly the Delta variant can spread through a community that is largely unvaccinated. In Springfield-Greene County, only 40% of people have been vaccinated. And in many of the surrounding counties, that figure is lower than 20%.

This is all causing immense distress for healthcare workers, who are once again overwhelmed, once again exhausted. They have been fighting this pandemic for coming onto a year and a half now with barely any breaks. And now they’re suffering the moral distress of seeing yet another surge, actually worse than the previous ones, but at a time when vaccines are readily available, when people should be able to very easily protect themselves, and at a time when so much of the U.S. has moved on from the pandemic, as you say. One hospital chief told me, you know, “New York has been throwing a ticker tape parade for its healthcare heroes, while ours are knee deep in COVID.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Yong, speaking about the rest of the country moving on, I wanted to refer to the — there was an NBA, National Basketball Association, championship game last night, game six, where the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship. And I want to play a clip of the NBA play-by-play commentator Jeff Van Gundy as he’s — as the camera pans out over more than 65,000 people outside the arena. We’re not talking about the people in the arena, but packed into each other outside the arena. This is the clip. I think that our producers have it.

JEFF VAN GUNDY: Dr. Fauci is cringing at home as he’s watching our game.

MIKE BREEN: Very difficult to socially distance outside.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, we’re talking about Wisconsin, where the positivity rate has gone up in the last three weeks from 0.9 to 2.5%, tripled in just the last three weeks, and a state that has only 48% of its people fully vaccinated. So we have to assume that maybe about 30,000 of those people outside that arena last night were not vaccinated. What do you think is the responsibility of sports officials or local political leaders with gatherings like this?

ED YONG: I do want to point out that all the evidence we have tells us that being outdoors is a much lower risk than being indoors. Now, obviously, that calculus changes a little bit if you are packed shoulder to shoulder with large groups of people. But I don’t think our threat model should be centering, like, outdoor spaces as like the major source of — the major driver of this pandemic. We’re talking a lot more about indoor spaces, which are much harder to film. We’re talking about places where there’s very poor ventilation.

And, look, you know, we all have a responsibility to try and keep the pandemic under control. Vaccination is obviously our most powerful defense, and it is incumbent upon everyone to try and find ways of getting more people to be vaccinated. But, you know, vaccination is one of many tools at our disposal. There are many others. We’ve just talked about ventilation, which could be much better across the country. You know, we should talk about things like masking, about distancing where — in cases where vaccination rates are low and where the virus is once again taking off. We don’t have to put all of our eggs in this one biomedical basket. We do have, actually, quite a lot of ways of protecting ourselves at our disposal. But we do have to actually use them. And I think the country has had a very poor track record of using them throughout the pandemic, and not just now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all students over the age of 2, as well as teachers and staff, wear masks when they return to school, even if they’ve been vaccinated. But many states have already banned school mask mandates. What do you think should be the policy on mandating masks?

ED YONG: So, I argued in a previous piece that the CDC was premature in lifting its indoor mask mandates, and certainly did not do so with enough guidance to allow other bodies, whether it’s states or institutions or schools, to make the right decisions. Now, some people argued that the CDC was correct in doing this because it allows for more flexible, local-level approaches to the pandemic. And while I do understand that argument, I think it doesn’t actually hold water, because, as you said, one of the consequences of the CDC’s move was that a lot of state-level leaders put in legislation and mandates of their own that prevented local departments, whether it’s schools or public health departments, from giving that more flexible, granular guidance.

You know, I think that the pandemic is in a very difficult stage right now. I do see what people — where folks who are saying that one-size-fits-all recommendations don’t work anymore, I see where that’s coming from. But it’s hard to actually put that into practice in a situation where you don’t know who’s been vaccinated, where there’s no way of establishing that. And that leaves businesses, it leaves schools, it leaves institutions, it leaves states in the lurch. Like, how do you actually give that more granular, flexible advice when you simply don’t know? You know, it either then becomes an honor system, which has huge problems, as we know, or you need to put in broad-scale, top-down regulations again.

AMY GOODMAN: Ed Yong, as you look at Missouri, you talk to very tired, dispirited healthcare workers, who are suffering PTSD. You speak with one woman who works at a Veterans Affairs hospital in St. Louis, who told you, “I’m a mom of a 1-[year-old] and a 4-year-old, [and] the daughter of family members in Zimbabwe and South Africa who can’t get vaccinated yet,” and talks about the frustration and rage she feels that people are not getting vaccinated in Missouri and what this means, and also the number of younger and younger people who are sicker and sicker, they’re saying, sicker than anyone they saw last year.

ED YONG: Yeah. So, there’s two tragedies there. Globally, there is massive vaccine inequity. When I last looked at the stats a few weeks ago, only about 10% of the world population had been fully vaccinated. And in many parts of the world, and across the entire continent of Africa, just 1% of people have been. And that’s horrifying. You know, we in the United States are living in a situation where vaccines are — where vaccine supply far outstrips demand, and people are struggling to find ways of convincing people to get vaccinations. Across much the world, people are clamoring for vaccines and don’t have barely any access to them because countries like the U.S. hoarded vaccines. And, you know, we are now with Delta ripping through the world. I don’t think we have a lot of time to vaccinate the rest of the world. This is a matter of intense moral urgency, and I’m not sure rich countries are acting as if that’s the case.

You know, the other thing that you mentioned is that there seem to be signs that Delta is having worse effects on younger people. Now, in Missouri, younger folks are making up a higher proportion of the people who are hospitalized than they were last year. Now, partly that’s just because elderly people were more likely to be vaccinated, and so, obviously, the age range of people going to hospital now with COVID is going to shift downward. That’s expected. But I asked everyone, every doctor and nurse who I spoke to in Missouri: Compare a 30-year-old who has COVID now — are they sicker than a 30-year-old who you saw this time last year? And unanimously, they said yes. Now, there are many possible reasons for that, but I think the upshot is Delta is making younger people sicker than they were last year. And that is a problem. We think of the pandemic as a thing that only affects the elderly. A lot of young people think they’re invincible. That wasn’t the case last year. It very much is not the case now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And today we’re concerned primarily about the Delta variant, but what about future variants? What concerns you the most?

ED YONG: My concern is that as the virus continues to spread around the world, both in unvaccinated — in largely unvaccinated countries, as we’ve said, or in unvaccinated pockets within the U.S., every new person it infects, the more widely it spreads, it just gets more chances to evolve into even worse variants, that might be even more transmissible or that might finally break through the immune defenses that our current vaccines provide. Either of these outcomes would be terrible.

And even transmissibility, Delta has shown — Delta is showing us what a more transmissible variant can do. The more we let this pandemic linger on, rage on around the world, the less protected any of us will be — including those of us who currently luxuriate under the umbrella of vaccination. It is incumbent upon everyone, including those of us who have been vaccinated, to try and push for an end to the pandemic rather than assume that we are going to be safe forever more.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you see the shift in places like Missouri and throughout the South of vast swaths of unvaccinated — of the country with unvaccinated people, what do you think the answer is?

ED YONG: The answer is hard. We are reaching a point where a lot of people, I think, have made up their minds about vaccines or have very entrenched beliefs and disbeliefs. And I think a lot of folks are feeling very frustrated about shifting the needle. But I think the needle can be shifted. I think that a lot of this has to do with establishing trust, going out to communities, listening to their concerns, thinking about what their concerns are, addressing them, and, you know, to build those very human connections that we’ve all relied upon over the last year and year-plus. You know, I think it is very wrong to believe that “the unvaccinated,” quote-unquote, are this monolith of people who are antagonistic and just being difficult. A lot of them have still very legitimate questions. And people I’ve talked to even in southern — in Southwest Missouri have had a lot of success trying to use trusted community voices, whether it’s firefighters or pastors, or just people’s neighbors going around door to door.

You know, when the vaccination campaign started, it was very much: “We’re going to open a place, and you come to us.” And we got the most eager people vaccinated. And now it’s harder. It’s a harder, high-touch game, where we’re going to have to go out to communities, we’re going to have to establish trust. And that work, unfortunately, is slow. It is slow, and Delta is very, very fast. So, again, it is incumbent upon everyone else to try and buy as much time for that work to take place as possible, because the cost of it not happening isn’t just going to befall the unvaccinated communities, it’s also going to affect the rest of us in the long run.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Yong, as a journalist, how do you react to those who are seeking to get the social media companies to be held responsible for some of the posts on their social media platforms that are either anti-vaxxer or spreading misinformation about the vaccines?

ED YONG: Yeah, I think that it is very clear that misinformation circulates faster on social media platforms than accurate information. We have evidence to show that that is the case. And I think unless companies, social media companies, take more accountability of the power of their platforms and, honestly, take further steps to improve matters, we’re going to be — we’re always going to be on a back foot. You know, I said that building trust is slow, that we’re going to have to reach out to individuals and turn everyone into an influencer within their own communities. That work is going to be harder and slower if disinformation, if misinformation is allowed to cascade through social media channels to the same extent that it has been already.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Ed Yong, for being with us, science writer at The Atlantic, recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the pandemic. We’ll link to your piece, “Delta Is Driving a Wedge Through Missouri.”

Next up, we go south to Colombia, where demonstrators have filled the streets again to protest the right-wing government of Iván Duque. Stay with us.

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