The problem, of course, is that the pandemic continues to evolve from day to day and week to week. A situation that looked fine a month ago looked more dire a week ago. Late last week, there was a raft of mainstream media stories switched from focusing on “a pandemic of the unvaccinated” to the “breakthrough infections” of the fully vaccinated. As near as I can discern from the coverage, it remains extremely difficult for the fully vaccinated to contract the delta variant. If they do, they can infect others, but claims that they can do so as readily as the unvaccinated seem exaggerated.
This kind of flux is a nightmare for organizers of large-scale events. Conferences for hundreds or thousands of people cannot be put together without a long lead time, unless someone is trying to create a performance art homage to the Fyre Festival.
Little wonder, therefore, that the delta variant is causing many professionals to rethink their plans. Many colleagues, for example, are wondering if it is worth attending the American Political Science Association meetings late next month.
I still plan on attending, but I get the risk aversion. I do wonder, however, whether folk are mistakenly extrapolating from the recent past to craft expectations about the future. Just as the past month proved to be a negative shock for those Americans convinced the pandemic had ended, this month might prove to be a positive shock: Those expecting a new disaster could be pleasantly surprised.
For one thing, the countries that have been hard hit by the delta variant are trending in the right direction regardless of their vaccination rate. While the data collection is spotty, India — the epicenter of the delta variant — has seen its case numbers decline from over 380,000 a day in early May to less than 50,000 now. The Netherlands has witnessed an even more drastic decline, from over 10,000 cases a day two weeks ago to fewer than 3,600 now. The United Kingdom has also seen its numbers fall by more than 50 percent just when everyone forecast a new surge.
New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells provides an excellent explainer of what we are learning about how the delta variant runs its course (among other things, that intranasal delivery of the vaccine would be a great idea for multiple reasons). But the chief takeaway is just how badly all predictive efforts have been with this virus: “Predictions about the near-term course of pandemic spread have made their makers look foolish again and again over the last 18 months, in part because the disease seems to be driven by a much wider and more mysterious range of factors (weather, superspreader luck, social behavior that often moves independent of public advisories) than we tend to acknowledge (focusing instead on mask-wearing and indoor-dining policies).”
The good news is that one explanation for the sharp rise and fall of the delta variant in other countries is that in places where an excess of 80 percent of a population has been fully vaccinated or recovering from infection, it’s harder for the disease to spread further. This means there are significant pockets of the United States where the delta variant could run rampant. But as vaccination rates start to rise again, and as more institutions mandate vaccination, those pockets will get smaller. The collapse of the Provincetown, Mass., outbreak (and the minimal loss of life associated with it) suggests that the more people get vaccinated, the less likely the delta variant will affect what Americans do this fall.
So the news may be better than the mainstream media has suggested the past week or so. That is little comfort to anyone trying to game out the situation two months from now. Especially if there are new variants on the horizon.