Fauci: You're not getting rid of me until this pandemic is in the rear-view mirror

You mean all we need to do is immunize another 30 percent or so of the population and we won’t have to see him on TV every five minutes anymore?

That may be the strongest pro-vaccine pitch he’s ever made.

Maybe we can compromise and convince him to retire once we get every man, woman, and child in the U.S., including infants, to agree to mask in perpetuity. Watch a few minutes, then read on.

The hottest debate in COVID journalism the past few weeks has had to do with how we’ll know when the pandemic is over. Do we need cases or deaths to drop below a certain level and stay there for a certain period of time? Should we tie “normalcy” to a particular vaccination rate? Or is the pandemic over once a critical mass of Americans have decided that they’re done with precautions of any sort according to their own personal risk tolerance? A Johns Hopkins epidemiologist recently told WaPo when asked how we’ll know when the pandemic has ended, “It doesn’t end. We just stop caring. Or we care a lot less. I think for most people, it just fades into the background of their lives.”

Well, now we have a new benchmark: The pandemic is over when Fauci quits. Let’s come together, get the shots, and make our collective dream come true.

Note the answer he gives at the start of the segment I clipped above. We tolerate 30,000 flu deaths a year, Ted Koppel points out. Why shouldn’t we also tolerate tens of thousands of COVID deaths? I thought that was going to be Fauci’s cue to say that we’re still on pace for way, way, way more than 30,000 COVID deaths annually but instead he frames his answer in the context of vaccines. The flu shot doesn’t work very well, he notes, because the flu mutates so aggressively each season. The COVID vaccine *does* work very well. We have no choice but to tolerate a particular threshold of influenza deaths but we *do* have a choice about how many deaths we tolerate from an … unusually deadly disease caused by a novel virus.

That logic feels counterintuitive. Flu is a known quantity, COVID isn’t. Flu cases have dropped off the map over the past two years due to masks and social distancing while we’re north of 750,000 dead from COVID. It’s strange to think we’re better positioned against COVID in some ways than we are against flu, but that’s Fauci’s argument per the effectiveness of the vaccines. If you’re worried that scientists will eventually begin encouraging masking and distancing to prevent flu — and you should be — Fauci’s comparison should only deepen your concern. We can control one virus with pharmaceuticals if we could only convince enough g-ddamned people to take the vaccine but the other virus, influenza, isn’t as easy to stop. Masks forever?

Speaking of flu, my concern about Republicans drifting towards full-spectrum anti-vaxxism is also deepening. Harry Enten of CNN looked at the partisan numbers this fall on who’s getting their flu shot. Last year there was hardly any partisan gap, with 58 percent of Dems and 54 percent of Republicans getting jabbed. The same was true in 2016, when Democrats led narrowly, 55/53. This year, though?

According to the Ipsos data, 68% of Democrats said they have gotten a flu shot or are very likely to get one. Just 44% of Republicans said the same. This 24-point gap is very similar to the 30-point gap for Covid-19 vaccines.

The Kaiser poll shows basically the same thing. A clear majority (65%) of Democrats indicated that they had received or will definitely receive the flu shot. Just 40% of Republicans indicated they would. The 25-point partisan gap in this data is a near carbon copy of the 24-point gap in the Ipsos poll…

If you look at the data, the partisan gap in the flu vaccine data for this year is appearing because of two phenomena. The first is that Democrats appear to be more likely to have received or will receive the shot than in past years. The second is that Republicans appear to be less likely to have done so.

It seems plausible that the push to get the Covid-19 vaccine has led to more Democrats getting the flu shot, while it has had the opposite effect on Republicans.

Note that the polarization goes both ways. It’s not merely that Republicans have gotten more anti-vax; Democrats have gotten more pro-vax. Vaccines, not just the COVID vaccine, are becoming part of partisan tribal identity. And if that’s true, it’s a cinch that GOP state legislatures will start chipping away eventually at school vaccine mandates for traditional diseases like measles and mumps. We’re going to have more illness in America and children of righty parents will suffer disproportionately.

I’ll leave you with Fauci encouraging families to get together and enjoy the holidays. That’s sufficiently different from his usual mode of hyper-caution that it feels itself like a small sign that the pandemic is ending.