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Sean Hyland Column: What’s the plan?

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At this juncture, two years into Covid, perhaps I’ll be forgiven for wondering what the heck is the supposed plan? As Omicron infections quickly rose (and collapsed just as quickly), deficiencies in the official Covid policy narrative that had already been visible with Delta became painfully obvious. It is now undeniable that a vaccination campaign, even one that could simultaneously vaccinate every human on earth, is completely incapable of eliminating Covid. The insufficiency of the vaccine to prevent infection and transmission, as well as the presence of wide-spread animal reservoirs of the virus, ensure that a strategy of elimination is in no way realistic. Regardless of vaccination status or precautions taken it’s a virtual certainty that we are all getting Covid at some point, probably multiple times in our lives.

What does this reality mean for the national strategy around Covid? Apparently not much. The trend toward universal vaccine passports continues to roll obliviously along on auto-pilot, despite the heartening recent setback from the Supreme Court, and in President Biden’s recent press conference he continued to hammer the theme of universal vaccination and (endless?) boosters as the only solution to the pandemic, even claiming that to end Covid we needed to vaccinate the whole world. I’m not sure what world the President is living in but it certainly diverges from mine, where it seems that as many vaccinated people that I know, including the boosted who should be at the supposed peak of protection, have come down with and spread Covid as the unvaccinated.  At this juncture it’s undeniable, even to the strongest believers in the vaccine’s worth that its real-world functionality is far below what was hoped for.

A realistic assessment appears to be that Covid vaccines are an approximate analog to the flu shot: an attempt to hit a moving viral target, and, while possessing a certain utility in reducing symptom severity, lacking in any significant long term ability to prevent or eliminate disease. The much touted efficacy numbers in the high 90’s for the vaccines seems something of a joke at this juncture, as it turns out that the protection fades precipitously within a few months. While it was becoming evident during Delta that “breakthrough” cases in the vaccinated were a considerable reality this has become undeniable with Omicron. Conveniently enough, the CDC has declined to even attempt to track the total numbers of breakthrough cases[i]. I suppose it would be unreasonable to expect access to all the pertinent data points when policy has seemingly already been decided as a matter of faith. 

            It may be countered, and I’ve heard it claimed, that the vaccines were never meant to prevent infection and were only designed to reduce symptoms. Perhaps scientists were aware of that, but they let the politicians and media run their mouths ad nauseum for months with promises that only universal vaccination could “end the pandemic”. While it’s certainly true that some vaccine critics can have bizarre ideas about Covid shots, the manda-vaxxers are also guilty of their own “vaccine misinformation.”  If changing tack from vaccines “eliminating Covid” to “reducing symptom severity” isn’t moving the goal posts, I’m not sure what is.

            It is also hard to avoid noticing that the strategy of imposing a choice between vaccination or social pariah status is, if nothing else, a great plan for big pharmaceutical companies like Moderna or Pfizer, who can essentially look forward to a government and corporate mandated captive audience for semi-useful vaccines administered in perpetuity every few months. If this isn’t the plan, then I’d certainly like to hear a precise articulation of what the plan is from the powers that be. Absent that, the relegation of natural immunity to the memory-hole and the lack of credit given to the simple efficacy of a healthy lifestyle coupled with the myopic focus on vaccination only gives the appearance that Big Pharma must be writing government policy. That must be a conspiracy theory though, since if there is one thing we can rest secure in, it’s that there is most definitely no corporate/ government revolving door! Remember, corporations are just simple citizens like the rest of us, according to the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision!

            Coercive government measures must be justified by a proportionally serious threat and a reasonable expectation that the coercion will achieve a clearly stated goal effectively. It is also necessary that extraordinary government powers must have a clear end point, otherwise they become an effective on-ramp for tyranny. However, in regards to Covid, it’s unclear what the actual end goal of the vaccination campaign is, other than permanent mandatory boosters for perpetuity.  The current policy thrust seems mainly effective at lining corporate coffers. This is doubtless a noble goal, which every government should aspire to, and every citizen should take pride in! As I believe JFK so eloquently intoned, “Ask not what your Big Pharma can do for you, but instead what you can do for your Big Pharma.” Or something like that. Regardless, it’s an inspirational sentiment indeed!

            Inquiring minds may ask why the government hasn’t been pushing Americans to lose weight, eat healthy, and adopt an active lifestyle, especially since obesity is the worst risk factor contributing to a negative Covid outcome (not to mention practically every other health outcome). I suppose that the “Healthy Lifestyle Lobby” must just be weak on clout in Washington. I’ll have to make sure that I mention to my local farmer’s market that they really need to up their campaign contributions and get a couple of senators in their pockets if they want to effectively leverage the political system in their favor!

            Motivations aside, the real question is that of justification for employing the coercive force of government and corporations to create a social apartheid for those who disagree with getting an (endless?) Covid vaccination. Under examination, there is no compelling justification. The extreme age skew in Covid deaths and hospitalizations was clearly evident very early on. Those 85 and older are 370 times more likely to die of Covid than those 18 to 29, according to CDC data,[ii] so it’s not as though it’s a mystery as to who is at a real risk from Covid and where targeted intervention would yield the most return. Younger people, and especially children, were never at any statistical risk from Covid[iii] with the average seasonal flu being more statistically much more dangerous to children than Covid. Consequently, it’s clear that any appreciable advantage from the vaccines is going to be present in the oldest age cohorts who are at most serious risk from the disease. Mandating a vaccine which reduces symptom severity to people who were never at any statistical risk of experiencing serious disease strays considerably too far into the realm of diminishing returns to justify such a sweeping governmental overreach. Since even the most vaccinated countries in the world have seen record infection rates during Omicron, the supposed rationale that vaccination is a necessity to avoid infecting others seems tenuous at best.

            My opposition is not to vaccines in general or Covid shots specifically. If one’s health or risk factors make it prudent, then by all means, get vaccinated for Covid-19. The short term benefits that the vaccines have provided in reducing symptoms for at risk demographics is hardly inconsequential. What I am opposed to is the implementation of a permanent and open-ended expansion of the security state via domestic vaccine passports, which are likely to become a centralized smart-phone based personal database necessary for basic societal functioning. New York along with IBM, the designer of the Excesior Pass app are already “exploring how the platform could be retrofitted to verify other types of records and credentials”. This permanent expansion is unnecessary and unsupported by necessity as Covid continues its transition from the pandemic to the endemic as a residual level of immunity via previous infection or vaccination brings it in line with other seasonal ailments like the flu. In fact, while the total infection rate is still higher than the average flu, the infection fatality rate of Omicron is already below most seasonal flus [iv], though you probably won’t hear those numbers proclaimed from the rooftops of the media’s ivory towers.

            In brief, the mandatory vaccination initiatives are largely misguided, unproductive, and polarizing, expending massive effort on swaths of the population who were never at significant risk from Covid in the first place. This myopia reflects a pathetic lack of realism and flexibility in Washington and state governments. It’s long past due for policy makers to rethink their approach to Covid mitigation and articulate a plan with clear and limited goals. The goal posts have been moved too many times since “two weeks to flatten the curve” to allow any more open-ended governmental carte blanche.

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