This is dangerous beyond words

What is the Delta variant of COVID-19 and why should we continue to wear masks even when we are vaccinated? That is a common question I hope to answer here and lay to rest once and for all the political nonsense inspired to intentionally spread confusion and mistrust about this new and deadly strain.

In some ways the Delta variant is so different from business-as-usual COVID that it might properly be considered a completely new virus. For one thing Delta is 40% more infectious. While the still active and predominant initial COVID-19 virus has an R0 (pronounced “R naught,” a mathematical measure of rate of infection) of 2.3-2.7 (one infected person is likely to infect 2.3 to 2.7 unaware people), the Alpha (United Kingdom) variant has an R0 of 4-5, and the Delta (Indian) variant has an R0 of 5-8.

What’s more, vaccinated persons can still carry the Delta variant without ever becoming sick themselves. That is why continued social distancing, scrupulous hand washing and mask-wearing remains essential even in a room full of fully vaccinated persons. For example, imagine a room with 10 vaccinated persons in it and only one of them is an asymptomatic carrier of Delta. After a brief, mask-free and close contact social exchange that group could emerge with 5 or more infected persons who could go on to infect tens or even hundreds of unvaccinated persons.

Worst of all, Delta is often transmitted with a significantly higher “load,” or amount of virus communicated from an infected person to one or more uninflected persons. The initial size of the viral load determines in part just how sick the newly infected person will become, because a larger load will more completely and effectively overwhelm a person’s autoimmune system, not unlike the way a larger army will completely and effectively overwhelm a country’s defensive measures. Unvaccinated persons infected with higher loads of Delta are more likely to wind up in hospitals and on ventilators. They are also more likely to die.

This is why the anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories being spread by Republicans and other anti-science fools is so deadly dangerous. But it is also why the vaccination itself has given us all a false sense of security.

In the United States only about 57% of Americans have been vaccinated. In order to achieve herd immunity, a minimum of 70% of all Americans need to become vaccinated, and to be safe probably more like 90% need to be vaccinated. This is unlikely to happen because of ignorance — ignorance of science, ignorance about the vaccine itself, and medieval, superstitious ignorance about how something so tiny and invisible to the naked eye as a virus really can harm us.

What I have explained above took no more than about 450 words. Unfortunately, in today’s world of the sound bite, social media-polluted attention spans and floods of competing misinformation, it is a very difficult message to convey to the deliberately ignorant. That is an advantage Fox News and the Republican Party continue to exploit with noise about rights and freedom and other crap appealing to the vanity and stupidity of their listeners.

  

Herd immunity can never be achieved so long as herd mentality prevails. Anti-vaxxer superstitious nonsense still holds sway, even among those of us who should know better. Many Republicans know this and they hope you never find out the truth, and in the final analysis they couldn’t care less whether you live or die. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.

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