NYT: Boosted adults had greater death risk of car crashes than COVID -- in the Delta wave

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

A key finding from the CDC and reported by perhaps the most credible mainstream media journalist, and one that raises all sorts of questions about COVID-19 policies. In the midst of the Delta wave, data from pandemic deaths offered a dramatic example of the benefits of full vaccination. As David Leonhardt explains in the New York Times, that definition has some ambiguity between the two-shot mRNA regimen (one for Johnson & Johnson) or with an additional booster.

Either way, the risk of death in the Delta wave differed greatly, but outcomes for those with the booster were even more dramatic:

Once you get a booster, your risk of getting severely ill from Covid is tiny. It is quite small even if you are older or have health problems.

The average weekly chance that a boosted person died of Covid was about one in a million during October and November (the most recent available C.D.C. data). Since then, the chances have no doubt been higher, because of the Omicron surge. But they will probably be even lower in coming weeks, because the surge is receding and Omicron is milder than earlier versions of the virus. For now, one in a million per week seems like a reasonable estimate.

This is an important point. Omicron is mild-er than its preceding variants, but hardly benign. The massive numbers of infections in such a short period of time have made medical assistance more difficult, resources are stretched further, and as a result we will see troubling death totals over the next couple of weeks. However, in terms of population, Leonhardt expects to see a significant improvement even over the numbers from last fall:

That risk is not zero, but it is not far from it. The chance that an average American will die in a car crash this week is significantly higher — about 2.4 per million. So is the average weekly death rate from influenza and pneumonia — about three per million.

With a booster shot, Covid resembles other respiratory illnesses that have been around for years. It can still be nasty. For the elderly and immunocompromised, it can be debilitating, even fatal — much as the flu can be. The Omicron surge has been so terrible because it effectively subjected tens of millions of Americans to a flu all at once.

Indeed. I wrote about that problem almost three weeks ago, in fact:

If the flu had the same transmissibility as Omicron, though, hospitals and clinics would get buried and therapeutics would be tough to get. Imagine a flu season in which practically everyone in the country got exposed to a vaccine-evading variant within an eight-week period, and you start to get the idea of why Omicron is still going to be a huge problem for a while.

That would make the flu a lot deadlier than it otherwise would be, a point that still has to inform public policy on Omicron — but not for long. Thanks to the insane transmissibility of this variant, it should burn itself out in most parts of the country in the next couple of weeks. After that, the combination of a largely vaccinated and exposed populace should force these same policymakers to rethink their approach to COVID … or to adopt nonsensical zero-tolerance policies for every respiratory disease regardless of mortality rates.

The big question here is how fast we can get people vaccinated and boosted to ensure that the populace can have the best resistance to COVID-19. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll that Leonhardt highlights, it won’t be “soon.” Over a third of Republicans (36%) have yet to get vaccinated at all, let alone boosted (32% report getting boosters, 30% vaccinated without boosters). Independents are almost as skeptical, with 22% unvaccinated and only 37% boosted (39% vaccinated but not boosted). Only 9% of Democrats are unvaccinated entirely, 29% have gotten the original regimen, and 62% are fully boosted.

That doesn’t bode well for a return to normalcy, but neither does the hysteria that has accompanied Omicron. Democrats, who are far more boosted than Republicans, are also far more fearful of getting seriously ill with COVID. Almost half of Democrats under 50 are very or somewhat afraid, even though under-50s are at significantly lower risk from COVID already, especially with vaccinations and boosters. Oddly, only a quarter of Democratic seniors are significantly fearful despite being a higher risk, a point Leonhardt highlights to suggest that COVID fear has become politically performative for progressives.

None of these trends are healthy. Getting vaccinated and boosted is the best way to avoid seriously acute COVID infections, as the CDC data makes very clear, even in a wave of the much deadlier Delta variant. But neither is hiding from a form of the disease that is demonstrably milder and has already been widely distributed across the entire population (or will be shortly). It is long past time to put our normal rational risk-balancing back into public policy to deal with a now-no-longer-novel coronavirus with similar risks as influenza and pneumonia with which we deal annually. That’s especially true now as we know that vaccinations don’t prevent transmission and that it’s now inevitable that the Omicron variant will eventually spread everywhere, regardless of mitigation policies.

In fact, the choices are identical now as in years past, as are the risks. We have vaccines available for influenza and pneumonia that can prevent or mitigate acute cases, just as we do with COVID. Those who choose not to use the tools to protect themselves from any of these have routinely been left to their own devices, and should be again now. Those who want to be shielded from the virus already know how best to do it — get vaccinated and boosted. The burden who chose who choose not to use those tools should be borne by themselves alone, while the rest of us get on with normal life. The only other option is perpetual paralysis, both social and political.