“All we have to do is look at the situation in India and Nepal…and in the United Kingdom, where variants of COVID-19 have become the dominant virus in those populations—in the UK despite a somewhat successful vaccination campaign. And those variants have different properties that increase the ability of this virus to spread and…eventually cause disease in the population. Anytime we give the virus a chance to get to know its host better, to get to see immunity against it, the natural selection principles laid out by Charles Darwin suggest that variants that are more fit will emerge. And, particularly in the US, we can’t look past that, because we really have sort of a dual population, we have the unvaccinated and the vaccinated, in many places the unvaccinated are larger than the vaccinated populations, and that just sets up a situation where the virus can see immunity, can go into people who don’t have immunity, and that back and forth is essentially how my laboratory selects variants when we’re studying them. So we’re setting up that scenario within the population, and that’s not a good thing for us to be doing.”
Dr. Andrew Pekosz, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, June 11, 2021
Being in a meditative mood, I want to reflect back as well as forward on this particular day, but being who I am my reflections start with numbers. It is said that a civilized person is one who can look at a page of numbers and weep. I don’t know how civilized I am, but these four numbers become a little blurry when I dwell on them.
Juneteenth, of course, is short for June 19th, the day in 1865 when the last black slaves in Texas were told of their freedom. Today is the 156th commemoration of that day, but the first 155 were unofficial. Now Juneteenth is a national holiday.
The holiday was declared by President Biden just a few days ago, perhaps on the same day that the total number of deaths in our country crossed the milestone of 600,000. It’s hardly something I wanted to be right about, but on December 15th I wrote an update called “Double Down or Double Deaths.” We had just crossed 300,000, and vaccinations had begun, but masks and social distancing were as important as ever, and the vaccine syringe was a shiny object I feared would distract us from these vital preventive measures, which we should have been doubling down on. We did not double down, so we doubled deaths.
2.9x is the odds ratio of blacks vs. whites being hospitalized with COVID-19, and 2.0x is their relative risk of dying. Some 89,000 African-Americans have died of it, and it’s a good bet that every one of them said, or if they couldn’t speak, thought, “I can’t breathe,” while dying—just as George Floyd did when he was being murdered by a policeman on a Minneapolis street.
So Juneteenth is well worth commemorating today and on all future June 19ths, but I am not sure how much celebration is in order. Those slaves in Galveston heard about their freedom, but the senses in which they were freed were limited. They were delivered into poverty, landlessness, wage slavery, fake and reversible “Reconstruction,” a century of Jim Crow with its countless lynchings, then a limited process of integration, reversible Voting Rights and Civil Rights laws, police brutality, and essentially permanent gaps in wealth, income, housing, education, imprisonment, and of course health—meaning life.
The same state of Texas they were supposedly freed into in 1865 is taking away their freedom—their voting rights—actively and aggressively, on this first official Juneteenth holiday. The same US Congress that passed the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s is, today, aggressively blocking legislation that would protect those laws from being dismantled by Texas and dozens of other states.
So as we celebrate this first Juneteenth National Holiday, white power elites are taking freedom away from blacks—to the cheers of their poor white dupes of course—as they have always done. They are preventing schools from teaching the truth as it actually happened, exactly in the spirit of Holocaust Denial, and with similar consequences. They are building and protecting the New Jim Crow, with state legislators, governors, police, and prison wardens taking the place of the Ku Klux Klan. They are redrawing red lines in housing, jobs, education, and health care delivery that generations have struggled to erase.
Do we think that a federal court system stuffed with young conservative appointees, crowned with a 6-3 hard-right Supreme Court like a rancid cherry on top is going to prevent these nationwide trends? Please. Do we think that with all these new forms of voter suppression the Democrats will keep their paper-thin margin in the Congress a year-and-a-half from now, and the White House two years later? I will let that question hang, and turn to more urgent matters that I personally know more about.
We are about to see the Southeastern Region, including my own state of Georgia, become the new experimental cauldron of differential death. The disparity between the races is much greater down here, in everything, even while the percentage of African-Americans is much higher. Oh, and the vaccination rates? The lowest in the country. The situation is ripe for a new variant of concern to cause a new surge, and as always a new chance for blacks to be sickened and killed more than whites.
Is there such a variant? Yes.
The variants now have Greek letter names to avoid stigmatizing countries or forcing us to memorize long strings of numbers. The original variant first seen in Wuhan (FSI-W) is the baseline. The first evolved variant of concern (FSI-UK) is now called Alpha, which because of greater transmissability caused grave problems in Britain in the winter. Beta (FSI-South Africa) is able to overcome a number of vaccines to a concerning extent. Gamma (FSI-Brazil) spread very fast there, has unexplained properties, and has been seen in many US states.
But the most concerning so far is Delta (FSI-India), far more transmissible than Alpha, which was far more transmissible than the baseline virus. It already predominates in the UK and is spreading fast in the US, especially among children and other unvaccinated people. Vaccine experts seem confident that they will be able to come up with solutions to present and future variants, sooner or later—for the vaccinated, currently a fraction of the world.
- New York, California, and many other states are opening up, pretty much completely. Air travel is huge again, and restaurants are humming. Some states and countries have vaccination rates that justify these comebacks.
- Continental Europe’s vaccination program has finally gotten traction and looks like it will continue to accelerate for a while. Israel led the world in vaccination success, the UK was not far behind, and Canada has caught up to them.
- India, while still very burdened, has seen a decline in cases in recent weeks that suggests that strict lockdowns in April and May worked (the full vaccination rate is 4%).
- Monoclonal antibody studies have continued to bring very good news. If you are offered them after testing positive, with or without symptoms, do not say no.
- Novovax has added a new vaccine to our armamentarium. It is based on a more conventional technology than mRNA, tried-and-true for several others, and it seems to have fewer unpleasant effects even after the second dose.
- The relatively high vaccination rate in the US hides marked regional variation. The Southeastern and some other traditionally Republican states have low vaccination rates and are accordingly vulnerable. The politicization of our national response to the virus has been and will be absurd and deadly.
- Biden’s vaccination program accelerated from 1 to 3.5 million a day in his first 100 days, but then plummeted to less than a million and is now almost sure to fall short of his target of getting 70% of Americans vaccinated by the Fourth of July.
- India is projected to have a third surge in a few months time, and there is little sign that vaccination rates will go up enough to prevent this.
- Japan has decided to proceed with the Summer Olympics, already postponed from last year. The vaccination rate is about 5 percent and not likely to increase to adequate levels by the time of the games. Preventive measures will be used, but the majority of the country does not want the games to go on.
- The UK was slated to open up completely on June 21st, but the Delta variant is spreading so fast there that Prime Minister Johnson has postponed opening until July 19th, a decision met by widespread protests.
My friend, poet Marilyn Mohr, shared a poem with me recently that captures the message and the anguish of the virus. It reads in part:
Carried on the moisture of our breath,
it contains us in loneliness, cages us in fear.
We cannot sing or touch, even our smiles are masked.
Of course we want to reopen, reconnect, celebrate. We are starting to be able to do that. But we for now we need to keep looking over our shoulders. Please take to heart the exquisite clarity of Dr. Andrew Pekosz’s explanation of our situation and how the disease works. Please remember that the virus is always changing, and that some of us are more vulnerable than others.
Now that Juneteenth is a national holiday, it would be nice to have a period of national reflection between it and July 4th. In a sense July 4th is meaningless without Juneteenth, which was one halting step (among many, with many more needed) toward realizing the promise of our Declaration of Independence.
Jews have a period of self-examination and penitence for ten days from the New Year to the Day of Atonement. Juneteenth to July 4th could be a more celebratory period, but the self-examination could be equally useful.
See you in the fall I hope. Stay safe,
PS: Please don’t just rely on me. Dr. Michael Osterholm’s now biweekly podcast from CIDRAP, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy of the University of Minnesota drops on alternate Thursdays. He combines realistic assessments and warnings with uplifting stories about how people are finding light and small victories in the pandemic. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Covid Digest, now weekly. More generally, I recommend the following: This The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast, including Dr. Daniel Griffin’s superb clinical updates from the front lines. Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York Times Coronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. I also recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning. For an antidote to my gloom, check out the updates of Dr. Lucy McBride, who doesn’t see different facts but accentuates the positive.