The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A less deadly virus now doesn’t validate skepticism from 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) puts on his mask as he leaves a news conference at Jackson Memorial Hospital on July 13, 2020, in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

At this point, the most common version of the coronavirus circulating in the United States is omicron subvariant BA.5. It replaced subvariant BA.2 a few weeks ago, which itself replaced the original omicron variant, BA.1. That replaced the delta variant as the most common, and delta replaced the original coronavirus that arrived in the United States in early 2020.

The pandemic has changed. The virus has changed. But, for many people who have scoffed at the danger posed by the virus since it first appeared here 2½ years ago, their rhetoric hasn’t changed. And now that the omicron BA.5 subvariant appears to be less deadly, they’re pretending they were right in dismissing the risk or the need for preventive measures all along.

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There’s been a good deal of analysis of the omicron variant since it appeared less than a year ago. The BA.5 subvariant is even newer, and research about its effects is limited, though not nonexistent.

So let’s look at an easily digestible metric: reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths for each phase of the pandemic. Since BA.5 took over as the most common subvariant only recently, we’ll group it together with the BA.2 subvariant.

You can see below that the relative number of hospitalizations and deaths during the period when the BA.2/BA.5 subvariants were most prevalent in the United States are lower than for earlier iterations of the virus. Yes, hospitalizations per reported case are up under BA.2/BA.5 — but that’s in large part because people are reporting fewer cases. A milder version of the virus means more people who don’t go to clinics for official tests, which means fewer reported cases. If we look at the deaths-versus-hospitalizations metric — comparing two quantifiable things — we see that the ratio of deaths to hospitalizations in this new phase is the lowest yet.

This isn’t definitive, but it reinforces what experts understand: BA.5 seems to be less deadly than past variants and subvariants.

Of course, there are lots of complicating factors. Vaccination continues to prove to be an important factor in reducing worse outcomes from the virus. In New York City, for example, it has consistently been the case that the rate of hospitalization for the unvaccinated is about seven times as high as that for the vaccinated. The omicron subvariants appear to be better at evading the protection from infection offered by vaccines and masks, but there’s no indication that high-quality masks and vaccines offer no protection.

What we’ve seen over the past 30 months or so is evolution at work. A virus that is better at avoiding vaccine protection is one that is better able to spread. A virus that is less likely to kill you is, too: more chance to spread to others. The virus has changed; the fittest version survived.

But the pandemic in the United States is hopelessly intertwined with politics. This is in part because of a conscious decision made by Donald Trump at its outset. Eager to win reelection, he sought to reduce the economic disruption posed by the virus. So he dismissed the obvious danger, suggesting that the virus would simply go away. He rejected mask-wearing in large part because it conveyed that the risk wasn’t minimal. It was a visible reminder that things were still unsettled.

Trump was so good at instilling skepticism about the virus that what he hoped would be a political triumph — the rapid emergence of vaccines that could reduce the risk of infection or death — was disproportionately rejected by his base as left-wing alarmism. The result was that deaths in the second year of the pandemic were heavily in places that Trump won in 2020.

All the more reason, then, for Trump’s allies to pretend they were right all along, as many are. At an event Tuesday in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) suggested not only that his laissez-faire (laissez-tousser?) approach to the pandemic was appropriate but that those advocating for preventive measures were somehow insincere.

“People would put in their Twitter profile a mask and a syringe and that was, like, their identity. And it was ridiculous,” he said. “They lied to us about the MRNA shots. They said, if you take it, you will not get covid. That is false. That is not true.” He went on to claim that people who had multiple booster shots were “deathly at risk of getting it.”

DeSantis does three things here. Working backward:

  • He conflates boosted people getting infections with boosted people being at particular risk from infection. This simply isn’t true; all available evidence continues to suggest that up-to-date vaccinations significantly reduce the risk of serious illness.
  • The governor claims that “they” lied about MRNA vaccines being perfect at blocking infection. This is a common bit of rhetoric, but it’s not clear where it originated. The vaccines can prevent infection, certainly. That’s one of their intended purposes, and clinical trials have shown that they do. But claims that it would prevent infection, universally? What scientist or official in the Trump or Biden administrations said that?
  • DeSantis may believe it was ridiculous for people to demonstrate their support for preventive measures. It’s consistent with his rejection of the idea that the community should be encouraged to take steps to counteract the virus, certainly. But it also reflects his long-standing insistence that “masks didn’t reduce spread,” which is simply not true. You need a better mask to block a more contagious variant, but, again, that’s simply a change in scale, not effect.

DeSantis is running for reelection this year (and, if not officially, for president in 2024) as the guy who rejected the coronavirus consensus. This is rhetoric, a ham-handed effort to cast his opponents as disconnected from the realities of the pandemic. But when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has loosened its guidance, it’s generally (but not entirely!) been because the nature of the virus has changed. DeSantis rejected the recommendations that helped save lives under delta (where Florida was hit particularly hard) and hasn’t moderated his arguments at all since.

Imagine walking up to a cave man 50,000 years ago and telling him he should just let a wolf live in his house. Wolves aren’t dangerous, you insist to him, and trying to keep the wolf out is impossible anyway. Just go about your life as if the wolves aren’t there! Most people who get bitten won’t die, after all. And someday soon, when it gets warmer maybe, they’ll just wander off.

Fifty-thousand years pass. We now, in fact, share our homes with evolved, less-dangerous wolves: dogs. There is a low risk from having a dog, and very, very few people are killed by dogs. The situation has changed. That doesn’t mean your argument from the cave man days was good.

“Time and time again,” DeSantis said Tuesday, “I think you’ve seen ideology placed over data and evidence.”

Absolutely true. Unfortunately, that tendency is likely to have contributed to the disproportionate death toll from covid-19 in Trump-voting areas.

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