Masks. Again. (Part Two)

Last week was a very long week on social media.

The CDC finally saw fit to release the data it used to justify recommending that even vaccinated people resume mask wearing indoors due to the threat of the Delta variant, and it is even more underwhelming than I expected. Scratch that, it isn’t merely underwhelming, it’s infuriating. Out of 164M Americans who are fully vaccinated, approximately 125k breakthrough cases have been reported in 38 states, with 1,400 deaths. And that 1,400 number, well, is a little suspect

“Some state officials said that they could not be sure the vaccinated individuals had died from Covid-19 or from other causes. But other states directly attribute the cause to Covid-19: 32 deaths in Louisiana, 52 in Washington state, 24 in Georgia, 49 in New Jersey, 169 in Illinois.”

To break those numbers down into percentages, the breakthrough infection rate for fully vaccinated people stands at .077%, hospilitazation at .004%, and death at .001%. This is the best news possible right now — the vaccines are hanging tough against the Delta variant, and if you are one of the unlucky few to have a breakthrough case your symptoms will be mild and manageable without medical care. Which, if you’re old enough to remember the Great Vaccine Efficacy Debate, you will remember that this is exactly what the vaccine is supposed to do. The promise was never that anyone fully vaccinated will never fall ill, but that it would be highly unlikely for that to happen and if it did your symptoms would be greatly reduced. That the vaccines are holding in the face of a more transmissible variant should be hailed as a medical victory. 

But because that story didn’t bleed, it didn’t lead. Instead, major media outlets decided to lead with the number of breakthrough cases while stripping all context from that number. In a tweet that is still amazingly up despite running afoul of Twitter’s disinformation rules, the New York Times tweeted that the CDC stated that the Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by the vaccinated easily as the unvaccinated. While other news outlets weren’t as egregious as the Times, every tweet I saw led with the number of breakthrough cases and not the percentage of cases, which led everyone with a glancing knowledge of statistics to kindly explain why that is the incorrect way of looking at these numbers. 

For example, both the CDC and major news outlets latched on the Provincetown breakthrough cases from the July 4th weekend as evidence of...what I’m not sure of other than trying to prove that the vaccines aren’t effective against the Delta variant. Here’s the other half of the story — the Provincetown area has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. So for those of us who can grok how statistics work, of course the number of vaccinated people who contacted COVID is going to be high because that group comprises the majority of the group you’re studying. And how did that turn out you ask? Per the Town Manager Alex Morse, 900 cases were identified, 7 hospitalizations, and 0 deaths.

As I try to never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity, I’ll point out that the media has been gobsmackingly horrible when it comes to reporting numbers, percentages, and statistics during the COVID pandemic. The level of competency to report numbers in a news story is so lacking that the basic editing course I’m taking has a whole module on reading and writing about numbers. Add to that the need for sensational headlines and tweets and you start to get an idea of why the media sucks so bad when it comes to reporting news of this sort. 

Here’s the issue — you and I, we already know all of this. I am Extremely Online and you likely are too, therefore you already know what the actual likelihood of a vaccinated person contracting and spreading any variant of COVID is. We are not the majority or even a sizable minority, and the majority is going to read the most tippy-top level of information being put out by both the CDC and the media and freak out, assuming the Delta variant is a threat to vaccinated people. It’s not, but we’re about to go through a whole new round of masking, at the very least, over a wildly overinflated threat to vaccinated people that just does not exist. 

(I’m going to have to do a Part 3 to get into the new mask mandates being enforced in you know where and already being violated by you know who, not to mention a Part 4 to discuss the real goal of getting everyone to mask back up is)