White House clarifies: Okay, okay, we're not heading back towards lockdowns

You know you’ve screwed up badly as a spokesman when you have to walk back something stupid you said not once but twice.

Once:

And twice:

Karine Jean-Pierre is the heir apparent to Jen Psaki as press secretary but Biden must be nervous watching her stumble around on a subject as touchy as this one.

Imagine Dems trying to compete in the midterms after blue-state governors have ordered a new round of business closures, with all the economic and psychological wreckage that would entail, at a moment when every pharmacy chain in the country is overflowing with vaccines. Did Jean-Pierre really need an extra day to figure out why lockdowns are a total nonstarter in a post-vaccine age?

Vaccines were the thing that were supposed to free us from lockdowns, remember?

The media is breathlessly reporting this afternoon that more than 125,000 vaccinated people have had confirmed breakthrough infections since shots started going into arms in January. That sounds like a lot — weren’t the vaccines cracked up to be 95 percent effective? — until you remember what the denominator is here.

The 125,682 “breakthrough” cases in 38 states found by NBC News represent less than .08 percent of the 164.2 million-plus people who have been fully vaccinated since January, or about one in every 1,300. The number of cases and deaths among the vaccinated is very small compared to the number among the unvaccinated. A former Biden adviser on Covid estimated that 98 to 99 percent of deaths are among the unvaccinated.

No confirmed infections in 99.92 percent in people who’ve been immunized. Over the same period, some 1,400 vaccinated people have died of COVID, a rate of .0009 percent or odds of around 117,000 to one. Good luck to Biden, Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, and Andrew Cuomo arguing that businesses statewide need to close in order to protect people who refuse to get a free shot that gives them those odds of survival.

But back up. How much can we trust any data on breakthrough cases at this point? NBC notes that nine states didn’t provide information, which means the true number of cases is a bit higher. To make matters worse, the CDC stopped tracking mild breakthrough infections awhile ago to focus exclusively on severe ones instead. They’re flying blind with respect to the true number, to the chagrin of experts:

Now some public health experts and lawmakers are pressuring the CDC to reverse its decision and collect comprehensive data on infections in vaccinated people — from mild to severe. Such cases are very rare, but monitoring them can help reveal how likely a vaccinated person is to infect others, and how well vaccines work over time and against emerging Covid-19 variants. State and local officials also need information on breakthrough cases to make better, more targeted, decisions about when masks are warranted or whether to limit the size of gatherings…

“Tracking a full range of breakthrough viruses is the only way to understand where the next variants may appear, where mutations are happening, and to finally get ahead of the virus and end the pandemic everywhere for everyone,” said Bright, who led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. “That’s why CDC’s decision to focus on only some of these viruses from vaccine breakthrough cases is extremely worrisome.”

But we can back up even further. Scott Gottlieb has made the point repeatedly that we’re probably missing a huge number of Delta infections in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. The unvaccinated group skews young and may not bother getting tested to confirm that they have COVID when they experience mild symptoms. Ditto for the older vaccinated group, most of whom are shaking off their breakthrough infections without difficulty. If so few members of both groups are taking the trouble to get tested, how many actual infections might be out there in the U.S. right now? Gottlieb told CNBC this morning that it could be on the order of a million per day.

There’s no way to know what share of “hidden” infections are happening to vaccinated people versus unvaccinated ones although it’s a safe bet that there are many more of the latter than the former. But even if there have been 20 times more breakthrough infections in reality than the 125,682 that have been confirmed, all that means is that the vaccines did their job by making the symptoms so minimal that most infected vaxxed people didn’t even feel the need to get tested. They may have been completely asymptomatic or might have experienced something more reminiscent of a cold. Either way, we’re left with the same question we had with the Provincetown study that drove the CDC’s new mask guidance: How many mild or asymptomatic infections in vaccinated people did the data omit entirely because those people never sought testing?

The bigger the number, the more it means that the vaccines failed to prevent lots of people from being infected but succeeded in halting the progress of those infections before they did any damage. And, maybe, before they rendered the vaccinated person infectious to others. That’s the next answer we need from the CDC. Is it only, or mainly, vaxxed people with symptoms who are passing the virus on or are the asymptomatic vaxxed doing it too? Stay tuned.