We in Massachusetts are living in a bit of a pandemic bubble right now, both literally and figuratively. The high vaccination rate in our state, as well as in neighboring states throughout New England, has contributed to a dramatic drop in the number of COVID-19 infections, deaths, and hospitalizations in our part of the country. The successful reopening of our economy serves as a testament to the value of having a highly-vaccinated — and highly-educated — population.
It’s as if our region of the U.S. is equivalent to an island nation such as New Zealand, where COVID-19 has not made a dent in economic or other activity since the beginning of the pandemic because its prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, sealed off its borders to foreigners from the very beginning of the pandemic. However, New England is not an island. Millions of our own citizens are traveling to other places and returning, and millions of non-residents are coming here to visit this summer.
The Delta variant of COVID-19 is now the dominant strain of the virus both in this country and throughout the world. The troubling aspects of Delta are that it is much more highly-transmissible than the original, it is more lethal, and the vaccines are slightly less-efficacious against it compared to the original strain of the virus for which the vaccines specifically were developed. In Australia (where vaccination rates are very low), the Delta variant has shown itself to be a whole new ballgame, so to speak, in terms of how contagious it is. The virus has been transmitted among people who simply came fleetingly into contact with each other and shared the same airspace in an indoor mall.
“It is the most hyper-transmissible, contagious version of the virus we’ve seen to date, for sure — it’s a superspreader strain if there ever was one,” said Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine and an executive vice president at the Scripps Research Institution, in a recent interview in Scientific American. The Delta variant is being blamed for the huge increases in infections and deaths throughout the world, particularly in places where vaccination rates are in the low single digits. There also are many areas in the U.S., such as parts of Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas, where vaccination rates are low, that predictably now are seeing large increases in COVID-19 cases caused by Delta.
The Delta variant is concerning enough on its own, but the real problem is this: The more people who become infected with COVID-19, the more likely that the virus will mutate into additional variants, with the possibility that vaccination efficacy could begin to drop significantly if one of these strains develops an ability to evade the vaccines’ protective effects. It is nothing less than tragic — and despicable, really — that there are some in public life who are urging Americans NOT to get vaccinated.
That mindset was on display this past weekend at the Republican-dominated CPAC conference, where some clown on a panel who spoke out against the nation’s vaccination program was actually applauded by those in attendance. There is a strong and vocal minority in this country who strive to create chaos — that’s what makes them tick. Whether we as a nation can overcome the combination of venality and stupidity that was on display at CPAC this past weekend will determine whether we can beat the pandemic in the short term and whether our democracy and our way of life can survive in the long term