We had hit a smooth patch in the pandemic: when vaccinations were finally unveiled and made available, then social gatherings and diminished cases placated concerns, then the CDC announced that fully vaccinated individuals could stop wearing masks indoors, and then restaurants were granted approval to reopen again. A tiny sense of normalcy returned with each aforementioned development. But the rapid emergence of the Delta variant onto the international stage effectively broke down almost every building block that had been developed.
Suddenly, we are being hit with a more transmissible variant, a lower vaccination rate, a growing body of research and data pointing to the fact that infections amongst the vaccinated population are higher than anticipated, and a major shift in societal attitude one after the other. Suddenly, new cases are spiking at a number 5x more than the average only a month ago – the latest number is 114,000. Suddenly, hospitalizations are surging again, and some state’s hospitals are already maxed out; recent data shows that states with less than a 40% vaccination rate have hospitalization rates 4x higher than states that have at least a 54% rate.
Perhaps the most central part of the story is vaccine efficacy. The collective sigh of relief that followed vaccines finally being released to the public veiled the world with a sense of indestructibility. Although we were considerably more covered, the pandemic was not over, much to the dismay of many. Vaccination did not completely erase the need for other pandemic-related safety measures, nor did it eradicate the potential for boosters down the line. Now – all of these realizations are bubbling up to the surface. The CDC reinstated a mask-wearing guidance, several states instated vaccination mandates, and now data is confirming that vaccinated individuals can get infected at a much higher rate than anyone would have expected.
As we entrusted the vaccine to limit the transmission of the Delta variant, we inadvertently ignored the extent to which its recipients could still get infected. The numbers support this, though a consensus has still not been reached. According to New York Times’ research on a handful of states with the most detailed case reporting, “breakthrough infections accounted for 18-28% of recorded cases in recent weeks, and 12- 24% of Covid-related hospitalizations.” These numbers indicate that, although breakthrough infections are clearly not negligible, they are not entirely driving the pandemic. According to Scripps Research, “the vaccines’ efficacy against symptomatic transmission of the variant in fully vaccinated people is about 60%, though it could be as low as 50%.” A Mayo Clinic preprint study found that number to be 42% instead.
Whatever the number may be, the bottom line is that the Delta variant is roughly 1,000x more transmissible than the original strain. According to Yale Medicine epidemiologist F. Perry Wilson, “in a completely unmitigated environment — where no one is vaccinated or wearing masks — it’s estimated that the average person infected with the original coronavirus strain will infect 2.5 other people… In the same environment, Delta would spread from one person to maybe 3.5 or four other people.” While these rates are being found in individual studies, the lack of a uniformed state and local level data collection for breakthrough infections is hindering access to the full picture. This being said, in the leaked internal CDC presentation from July, it was estimated that “some 35,000 cases of symptomatic COVID in vaccinated people per week, among 162 million vaccinated Americans, as of July 24.” As such, and in the words of Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina, “the message that breakthrough cases are exceedingly rare and that you don’t have to worry about them if you’re vaccinated — that this is only an epidemic of the unvaccinated — that message is falling flat.”
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the restaurant industry has had to deal firsthand with the risks and uncertainties associated with the Delta variant. Their triumphant reopening was curved by anti-vaxxers, another mask mandate, and now a much more heightened risk assessment. The political climate surrounding the pandemic, but vaccinations more specifically, has nowhere so aggressively played out than in the restaurant industry – to say the least. And now that anger and those frustrations are turning into concern and fear again. The public is reverting back to its March 2020 self, and the general consensus is that perhaps we should be more cautious once again.
The mask and vaccination mandates should be the perfect solutions to these waves of concern, however, they too, are highly politicized. Once again, restaurants are handed the policing hat and expected to steer the ship when they can barely handle their most core responsibilities. This is not to mention the fact that such legislative interventions are not even saving the restaurants that were already struggling to survive just a couple months ago; if anything, they are losing more business than ever before for a decision that they did not take.
As always, the situation is ever developing.
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