Harris: We didn't see Delta or Omicron coming

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

It’s weird to me that this admission feels shocking, almost scandalous, when it merely acknowledges something everyone already knows and couldn’t reasonably expect to be otherwise. Of course the White House didn’t see the new variants coming. Scientists didn’t see them coming either, especially the heavily mutated Omicron. Is the CDC supposed to be psychic?

But it does feel shocking, for two reasons. It’s jarring to hear a major American politician admit fallibility in any context, particularly in the bitterly polarized partisan climate of 2021. And it underscores the hubris of Team Biden and its science bureaucracy in having foolishly led the country to believe the pandemic would begin winding down after vaccination became widely available this past spring. This ad made the rounds online in March for cartoonishly capturing a universally felt sentiment, the hope of imminent liberation from the pandemic. That was nine months ago. It feels like another lifetime.

Failing to warn Americans about the near-term probability of new variants that would cause millions of breakthrough infections and, rarely, even death in the vaccinated is why the post-vaccination phase of the pandemic seems disappointing even though the vaccines have saved literally a million lives. They’ve all but eliminated the risk of death from COVID. But they’ve failed to restore the normalcy which everyone craves.

For someone who got elected on a promise to “shut down the virus” and bring about that normalcy, admitting failure is a big deal. Harris is admitting more than that, in fact. Whether she realizes it or not, she’s confessing that the White House and its science brain trust aren’t sure anymore what they’re up against and where the pandemic might be going.

“We didn’t see Delta coming. I think most scientists did not — upon whose advice and direction we have relied — didn’t see Delta coming,” she said. “We didn’t see Omicron coming. And that’s the nature of what this, this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants.”

President Biden celebrated “independence” from the virus in an upbeat July 4 speech, saying, “While the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyzes our nation. And it’s within our power to make sure it never does again.”

At the time, some public health experts warned that his optimism was premature, given that the Delta variant was already a significant threat…

“We have not been victorious over it,” [Harris] said. “I don’t think that in any regard anyone can claim victory when, you know, there are 800,000 people who are dead because of this virus.”

An advisor tried to clean that up afterward, telling CNN that Harris meant they didn’t foresee the specific type of variants coming but that they knew that variants were coming, which is why they’ve been so keen to get Americans vaccinated. Is that right? Why did Biden declare “independence” from the virus on July 4, then? Delta was already surging in Israel at that point, a red alert that immunity was waning and the U.S. would soon face a new wave.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died since.

That’s not the only thing the White House was wrong about. It’s one thing to not anticipate what kind of variant might arise in the wild, as that’s a matter of random chance playing out across a global population. It’s another thing to have your own lead science agency miscount the number of vaccinations that have been carried out in the U.S. over the past 12 months. A Bloomberg analysis today reveals that the CDC’s tally of first doses and second doses administered doesn’t add up.

Last weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised a bellwether metric — the share of people 65 and older with at least one shot. The agency reduced the proportion from 99.9%, where it had been capped for weeks, to 95%, without changing its raw shot totals.

The move acknowledged a dynamic state officials have discovered: in collating reams of data on vaccinations, the U.S. has counted too many shots as first doses when they are instead second doses or booster shots.

CDC data show 240 million people with at least one shot, or about 72.5% of the population. But the agency says only 203 million are fully vaccinated, or 61.3%, an 11-percentage-point difference that is far larger than in other developed countries.

It never made sense that as many as one in 10 people who got a first dose would somehow neglect to get a second but that’s what the CDC’s data suggested. In fairness, they’re at a major handicap in collating data relative to agencies in countries with single-payer health-care systems. Because Americans have different types of insurance and use different providers with discrete record systems, keeping track of them involves sifting through a hash of data from many different inputs. That leads to overcounting. Bloomberg points out that someone who got their first and second doses in different counties, or got their first shot at the VA and their second at a privately owned pharmacy, might be recorded as having received two first doses because the records kept by each provider show only one dose being administered to that person.

The good news is that this means many people who have been recorded as having received only “first doses” are actually fully vaccinated, which should give them decent protection from severe illness caused by Omicron. The bad news is that it means the share of Americans who’ve received at least one dose of the vaccine is lower than the 72.5 percent currently recorded by the CDC. Maybe quite a bit lower: Bloomberg guesstimates that there may be 10 million more unvaccinated people than previously assumed. And if anyone’s going to end up having a severe case from Omicron, it’s the unvaccinated.

I’ll leave you with the graph below. There’s nothing surprising in it; many other polls have showed, paradoxically, that the people with the most immunity from COVID are also the most likely to take precautions against infection and vice versa. But the stakes of that dichotomy are higher than ever with the arrival of the new variant, the most contagious strain of the virus yet. Practically everyone, including the unvaccinated, will be infected by it. If Omicron really is intrinsically “mild,” people with no immunity might do fine. If it isn’t, God help us.