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It seems to be perpetually just around the corner, but never quite here
Tomorrow I’m scheduled to get my booster shot, which means I’ll finally be able to do . . . basically what I’ve already been doing. That is to say: I’ll be eating in restaurants, going to the theater and the movies, traveling by subway, taking planes occasionally. My life has not reverted entirely to what it was like pre-pandemic; I follow social norms regarding masking indoors at venues that require it, and I’ve gotten tested as well when institutions have required it, or, on my own initiative, when I know I’ll be seeing someone who is more at risk personally. But I’m hard-pressed to think of anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do that I actually want to do.
Why am I getting a booster then? Because I can. I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which, because it is somewhat less effective than the mRNA vaccines (though still very effective at preventing severe disease and death), makes me eligible for a booster. I don’t think it’s essential that I get one—I'm not afraid to emerge from a restricted life without it, and it’s far more important to get shots into more unvaccinated people than to give me a booster—but since I can, why wouldn’t I? While the dramatic efficacy of the vaccines has been demonstrated by overwhelming evidence (breakthrough cases notwithstanding; they can be extremely effective without being perfectly so), boosters seem to clearly improve that efficacy further. I’ll be better protected and less likely to be part of a chain of transmission, and it’ll just take a few minutes of time and a couple of days of feeling lousy.
I recognize, in other words, that getting a booster is both very low-risk and very low-cost to me, and has some personal and societal benefit. By contrast, limiting what I do has a meaningful personal cost. Whatever I don’t do because of Covid, that time is gone, never to be restored to me. And it has very limited societal benefit, because being significantly more cautious than the society around me is not going to change the course of the virus overall.
Not everyone is going to make the same risk calculus. Some people have very good reasons to be more cautious than I am—because they have an immunocompromised person at home, for example. Some institutions—like nursing homes, for example—have similarly got very good reasons to be especially risk-averse, not only mandating vaccinations but addition layers of masking and testing on top.
But as a society, we’ve gotten into this very weird place where some institutions (schools in more Covid-conscious communities, for example) are behaving in an extremely risk-avoidant manner even when the risks are relatively low and the costs to the institution are high, while other institutions are doing the opposite. I don’t think this is justifiable on public health grounds, but it’s doing sustained damage to the institutions that have adopted a persistently more risk-averse approach.
The Off-Ramp is the Wrong Metaphor
Much of the column details the damage done to schools, churches, and other institutions that have erred on the side of greater Covid-caution. Rather than repeat the details here, I encourage you to read the whole thing.
But the irony is that these institutions behave as if they are making public health policy, when in fact they are doing no such thing. Rather, by taking a more Covid-cautious position than the society around them in spite of not facing greater risks (such as, for example, hospitals and nursing homes face), they’ve only alienated themselves from the society around them, and undermined their authority, without actually protecting them at all.
There's been discussion lately of off-ramping from restrictions and transitioning to a world of endemic COVID. But these discussions almost always take place in a bubble that presumes continued respect for the authorities doing this balancing act, when that respect has in fact eroded badly. The actual country we live in is not living socially-distanced life — not even in the bluest of blue states and cities. Hypocrisy is rampant, and it is perceived.
The metaphor of the off-ramp suggests that we’re on a particular road and we need to figure out where we want to get off. This is an appropriate metaphor for a country like Australia or Vietnam that pursued an aggressive zero-Covid strategy that was working against the original virus but has not fared as well against the Delta variant. They need to formulate and implement a new strategy. It’s also an appropriate metaphor for individuals who have conscientiously tried to avoid getting Covid; both assessing risk and getting comfortable with it are processes that work out differently from individual to individual, and we should respect that fact.
But America is not on a road. We have not really been following a strategy, as a nation, for containing Covid, and we have no clear destination in mind. And so the institutions that are committed to doing their civic duty by supporting that strategy are on some level committed to a mirage. They may think they are modeling best practices or avoiding doing harm, but they aren’t really doing those things at all. They’re participating in a fantasy of civic dutifulness, and that’s paradoxically a much harder thing to change.
These places don’t need an off-ramp. They need a wake-up call.
Vaccine Mandates Hit a Pothole
Meanwhile, the one strategy we do have for reducing Covid to a normal seasonal disease like the flu—mandates to promote more widespread vaccination—is running into additional snags. Progress in getting Federal employees vaccinated—a workforce over which the president has clear authority—has been mixed. Most workers have already been vaccinated, but employee unions continue to raise objections to imposing any consequences on the holdouts, and many of the latter have sought religious exemptions which, as I have argued before, will be touchy to reject en masse. On top of that, the Democratic governor of Kansas has forcefully objected to the federal mandate on private-sector workers, and a federal appeals panel has blocked implementation of the private-sector mandate, arguing that OSHA exceeded its authority in promulgating the rule.
I think that view has a very good chance of prevailing in the courts, something I fretted about when the mandate was first announced. Companies can clearly impose such mandates on their workforces unless state law or a union contract says otherwise, and have had some notable successes (e.g., Tyson Foods) where they have taken the initiative to do so. Moreover, there is ample precedent that state governments can mandate vaccinations on the entire population if they so choose. But the federal government doesn’t have the same inherent authority that state governments do. While OSHA has a broad mandate to regulate workplace safety, a blanket mandate on all businesses with over 100 employees is going to be hard to defend as such. It’s much easier to defend as a general public health measure—but if that’s the rationale it would likely require enabling legislation (and might still face challenges on federalism grounds). And regardless of the merits of the argument (and I think there are merits on both sides), this Supreme Court starts from a very skeptical position when the Executive claims the right to impose new regulations on private businesses. If I were Elizabeth Prelogar, I wouldn’t love my chances.
From a pure policy perspective, I find the situation depressing, but unsurprising. As I argued months ago, once the vaccination campaign got infected by the culture war, it was doomed to fall short of its initial promise, because the culture war cannot be won, certainly not on the timetable necessary to break the back of the pandemic. I hope that Biden’s private sector mandate, even if struck down by the courts, will still have a positive effect by inspiring large companies that have been hesitant to move to institute mandates of their own. I hope, similarly, that both Biden and those governors that understand the importance of the vaccines succeed in staring down opposition to mandates on state employees, whether from hospital workers or police unions or what-have-you. But it’s going to be a longer, slower grind than it would have been if we had more social cohesion as a society.
And yet, to come full circle, the one thing Covid-conscious jurisdictions and institutions can do to lower the culture-war salience of Covid would be to more aggressively relax restrictions where vaccination rates are high, and return life to the greatest possible semblance of normalcy. As I argued later in the same paragraph I quote above:
[T]he pressure for continued restrictions is itself an expression of lack of confidence in vaccines—the only actual tool we have for lowering the ultimate toll of the virus—and feeds the perception among those already suspicious of the authorities that their real objective isn't controlling the pandemic but controlling the populace. It thereby contributes to the anti-vaccine sentiment that is the primary cause of America's continuing high death toll from COVID.
On Here: Covid and the Elections
Finally, my one Substack post of the week was about the elections. While a lot of the noise has been about critical race theory and other culture-war matters, I think its impossible to separate those issues’ salience from the pandemic and its restrictions that have undermined confidence in the public schools.
If McAuliffe could have responded to Youngkin talking about Toni Morrison by talking up new science labs, higher reading scores, a rising graduation rate, etc.—or, for that matter, about fewer in-school violent incidents, more nutritious school meals, and other crucial quality-of-life issues related to education—he would have made Youngkin look like a small-minded crank. But of course, during Covid the schools were closed—for far longer than they needed to be. So there, once again, we’re back to material conditions: services were not provided, and the people noticed, and are not pleased. . . .
The other big issue of course is the economy, particularly inflation and supply bottlenecks. The post goes on to talk about how the Democrats could respond constructively to both economic and pandemic-related concerns. But then, responding constructively is always perennial good advice, if easier to give than to take.