There has been a lot of chortling on the internet this week over the saga of the Texas Democrats who jetted off to Washington, DC and inadvertently created a COVID cluster. The story does lend itself to ridicule after the Democratic lecturing over the pandemic and attacks on Republican “superspreader” events, but let’s look past the partisanship to see what the story really tells us about the pandemic.
As of this writing, six fully vaccinated Texas Democrats have tested positive after fleeing the Lone Star State last week to deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass a new voting restrictions bill. Photos posted on the internet show maskless Democrats sitting on what appears to be a chartered Embraer Regional Jet.
But that isn’t the end of the story. The outbreak spread to the Capitol as a White House staffer and a senior aid to Speaker Nancy Pelosi also tested positive. Further, Vice President Kamala Harris was reported to have tested negative, suggesting that she may have also been exposed (Harris was vaccinated back in December). It’s likely that there will be more cases among congressional and White House Democrats in the near future.
There are a couple of lessons that we could take from the incident, but some of the obvious conclusions would be missing the point. One would be that fate is punishing the Democrats for delaying the Texas vote. However, if fate or God is punishing the AWOL Dems, what does that say about Donald Trump and all the Republicans who contracted COVID-19 over the past 18 months?
[I’ve mentioned on social media that my opinion is that leaving the state to deny a quorum is a legitimate tool to protect minority rights. It is essentially a more difficult version of the filibuster. Texas House rules require two-thirds of legislators to be present but there seems to be no law that requires individual legislators to be present, although an analysis of Texas law by the Austin American-Stateman does confirm that law enforcement can be sent to bring the MIA legislators to the capitol… if they can be found in a Texas jurisdiction. But I digress.]
A Twitter user suggested to me that the Democrats either knowingly contracted COVID-19 or faked the positive test results in order to trigger a new mask mandate. I’m very skeptical of such a claim for several reasons, but primarily because the people in question are politicians. What politicians generally fear more than anything else is ridicule and having their bad judgment exposed. This is because those factors make it hard to get re-elected and what most politicians want more than anything else is to keep their job.
Another popular point of view is that the Democrats were jetting around maskless, but this is exactly the policy that many on the right have been advocating for on not one but two counts. First, there is widespread bipartisan agreement that if you are fully vaccinated then you should not have to wear a mask in most settings. And the Democrats were reportedly all vaccinated.
Second, many have complained about the fact that airline passengers are still required to wear masks, even if they are vaccinated. The fleeing Democrats reportedly chartered private jets rather than flying the airlines. Private and charter flights are governed by different laws than public airline flights, so this isn’t necessarily evidence of flouting the rules.
Instead, the Democrats were following a standard advocated by many Republicans. The question is how well that standard held up under current conditions. If we are honest, the answer would seem to be “not very.”
In this incident, where the policy change was put to the test, the virus spread through a planeload of vaccinated passengers. We don’t have all the details of the outbreak, but the airplane in the picture appears to be an Embraer Regional Jet. The ERJ-145 seats as many as 50 passengers. If five of the Texas Dems were infected on the flight (one would have had to be the carrier), that means that the virus spread to 10 percent of the plane’s passenger load.
But that is making assumptions. In this case, there should be contract tracing available to show how the virus spread. Did the infected Democrats sit near each other on the plane? Were they infected prior to the flight, on the plane itself, or were some infected later?
The flight was on July 12 and COVID-19 takes about five to seven days to show symptoms and lead to positive test results. Some of the Texans could have been infected after the flight. These questions should be asked and answered before we drop the airline mask requirement.
The most important lessons we can learn from the Democratic COVID cluster are about the danger of the Delta variant and the limitations of the vaccines. I wrote last week that the vaccines seemed to be effective against Delta, which now makes up 83 percent of new COVID cases in the US. That’s still true, but it’s also true that the vaccines are less effective against Delta than they were the original Coronavirus.
For example, if your vaccine was 90 percent effective against the original virus but is only 60 percent effective against Delta, you are still protected even though you’ve lost quite a bit of your protective margin. In fact, you’ve lost about a third of your protection, but you’re still much better off than if you were unvaccinated.
The other aspect of being vaccinated is that even partial protection means that that you’re less likely to have a severe case of COVID-19. Dr. Rochelle Walensky of the CDC told CNN that statistics show that 97 percent of the new COVID hospitalizations and 99.5 percent of deaths were among people who were not vaccinated. These statistics mean that nearly every death that occurs at this point in the pandemic was easily preventable.
Further, an analysis by NBC News found that a majority of the “breakthrough” cases where vaccinated individuals had a severe case or died were among seniors or people with health conditions that weakened their immune systems. Granted, COVID-19 has always attacked the elderly and those with other health problems, but being vaccinated offers these people added protection even if it isn’t absolute.
I like to think of a vaccine as body armor. If you wear a kevlar vest, it will stop a bullet, but it won’t necessarily stop every bullet. If you get shot in the head, you’ll probably die because ballistic vest doesn’t cover your head. If you get shot by a large caliber bullet, it can penetrate the vest and then your body,
Does this mean that body armor is worthless though? Ask the many thousands of people whose lives have been saved because they had this extra protection.
In aviation, we use the “Swiss Cheese” model of safety. Imagine a stack of slices of Swiss cheese with its famous holes. If you hold up one slice, it’s easy to poke your finger through the hole, but if you stack several slices on top of each other, holding them so that the holes don’t match up, it gets more difficult. The holes don’t go all the way through the stack.
The idea is that if you stack up enough preventive measures, it makes it less likely that an accident will happen. While no safety measure can stop every accident, problems missed by one countermeasure will hopefully be caught by another.
Pandemics are the same way. No one measure can stop every virus particle from being transmitted so we need multiple layers of protection. Vaccinations are an important part of our stack of Swiss cheese, but we need other layers as well, at least until we have a large portion of the population vaccinated. We need to wash our hands, maintain some distance from strangers and people who might be infected, and we might still need to occasionally wear a mask in high-risk areas.
This won’t go on forever, but what we are seeing right now is what happens when people decide the pandemic is over but refuse to get the vaccines required to end it. When the virus has so few potential hosts to which to spread that it has nowhere to go, the pandemic will end. That will happen a lot sooner and with far fewer deaths if we achieve herd immunity through vaccinations than if we wait for COVID-19 to run through the rest of the population.
And vaccines reduce the chance that the virus will mutate into yet another variant that is even more resistant to current vaccines. The worst possible way to end this pandemic would be with the beginning of a new one.
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