The Tragedy of Politicized Vaccines

Public health shouldn't be made into a partisan issue.

The basics of the tragedy can be summed up as follows via the AP: Nearly all COVID deaths in US are now among unvaccinated.

Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. now are in people who weren’t vaccinated, a staggering demonstration of how effective the shots have been and an indication that deaths per day — now down to under 300 — could be practically zero if everyone eligible got the vaccine.

An Associated Press analysis of available government data from May shows that “breakthrough” infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 853,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That’s about 0.1%.

And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8%, or five deaths per day on average.

In terms of evidence that vaccines work as promised, this is stunningly strong.

Despite this evidence, and despite ready access to the vaccine, a lot of people are not getting their shots:

About 63% of all vaccine-eligible Americans — those 12 and older — have received at least one dose, and 53% are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. While vaccine remains scarce in much of the world, the U.S. supply is so abundant and demand has slumped so dramatically that shots sit unused.

[…]

The preventable deaths will continue, experts predict, with unvaccinated pockets of the nation experiencing outbreaks in the fall and winter. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, said modeling suggests the nation will hit 1,000 deaths per day again next year.

While I recognize that there are people eschewing vaccination for various reasons, it is hard to avoid to fact that a major explanatory variable is partisanship. The Trump administration, and Trump himself, made the virus and everything to do with the pandemic, into a political issue that has helped encourage a lot of Americans to downplay the threat, and in many cases not to be vaccinated.

It is not hard to envision an alternative version of the pandemic, with a president who encouraged mask wearing, socia distancing, etc., wherein far fewer than 600,000 died.

Political Scientist Seth Masket, writing in the Denver Post notes the following regarding vaccination rates across the country:

The divide among the states is striking. Quite a few states will hit President Joe Biden’s goal to have 70% of adults vaccinated by July 4, and nearly all of those are states Biden won in last year’s presidential election. The states that are coming up short of the vaccine goal are those states won by then-President Donald Trump.

The figure below plots out each state in terms of its vote in the 2020 presidential election and the percentage of adults who have received at least one COVID vaccine. There is a remarkably strong relationship between these two trends. In statistics, a correlation coefficient measures the relationship between two different variables; it ranges from zero (meaning there’s no relationship at all) to one (meaning the two variables are essentially identical). In this case, the correlation is .85. We almost never see this high a correlation between variables in the social sciences.

Masket notes in the piece that if one looks at county level data across the fifty states, one finds the same pattern within the states.

And yes, correlation is not causation, and it is possible that other factors (such as education and urban v. rural come into play as well), but this is still pretty stark and the hypothesis that partisanship is the driver of vaccine behavior has strong support. As Masket notes:

As public opinion surveys have demonstrated since the beginning of the pandemic, Republicans and Democrats have very different assessments of the disease and just how dangerous it is. Throughout 2020, roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans thought COVID was a major threat to the health of the American population. Democrats have consistently been more likely to wear masks, to favor business restrictions to slow the spread of the illness, and to believe the warnings of medical scientists.

And these differences resulted quite logically from the messaging people were getting from their party’s leadership. As we know from decades of political science research, most people don’t just start with a blank slate and figure out their opinions on public policy questions on their own. They rely on partisan cues. That is, they look to the opinions of people they trust in politics and tend to adopt those views.

In the case of COVID, the partisan cues have been speaking very loudly. Trump — with the exception of a few weeks in the spring of 2020 — consistently played down the seriousness of the pandemic; said it was nearly over even as it was spreading like wildfire; expressed skepticism in the findings and recommendations of the medical community, and called for resistance to masking rules and business regulations. Republican policymakers have largely echoed those comments since he left office. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, expressed nearly the opposite viewpoints, almost in unison. Public opinion has closely followed the discourse of political leaders.

And just as the public was polarized about the virus, so it is polarized about the vaccines. 

I fear we are about to see a serious and tragic (I know I keep using that word) natural experiment wherein the unvaccinated portions of the country suffer the consequences of our polarized politics.

For example, back to the AP piece:

In Arkansas, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, with only about 33% of the population fully protected, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising.

“It is sad to see someone go to the hospital or die when it can be prevented,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted as he urged people to get their shots.

Indeed. And kudos to Hutchinson, a Republican, for trying to get the word out. Indeed, as Masket notes in his piece, there are other Republicans trying to get the word out as well. But the main message from Trump was clear, as has been the messaging from a lot of right-wing media outlets (for example, Fox News viewers are getting mixed messages about whether to take the coronavirus vaccine). There is also signalling from conservative politicians, like Ron DeSantis of Florida about vaccine passport and the like.

To echo something else the Masket notes, apart from what was typically considered a fringe group of anti-vaxxers, we have had a national consensus on vaccinations for some time now, such as understanding why there are a number of vaccines one’s children are required to have before attending school. Public health, in this regard, has not been a partisan issue until now.

Side note: I can’t help but think that we, as a society, are victims of our success. I am not sure what the exact cut-off would be, but people in, say, their early forties and younger have no memory of what used to be called “childhood diseases” like measles, mumps, and chickenpox since vaccinations have essentially eliminated them (not to mention polio and smallpox). It is easier to believe in vaccines when one has seen the world without them and conversely it is easier to doubt them when it seems like they don’t do anything.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Seth Rogan on one of Conan’s final shows made the point that we’re in this odd moment when virtually overnight the people not wearing masks are the smart ones.

    Side note: I can’t help but think that we, as a society, are victims of our success. I am not sure what the exact cut-off would be, but people in, say, their early forties and younger have no memory of what used to be called “childhood diseases” like measles, mumps, and the chicken pox since vaccinations have essentially eliminated them (not to mention polio and small pox). It is easier to believe in vaccinates when one has seen the world without them and conversely it is easier to doubt them when it seems like the don’t do anything.

    I imagine going back in time to London in 1665 and telling people that I could stop the Black Death in its tracks – but there’d be the inconvenience of wearing a mask for a few months then a slight pinch in one arm. (You know, the bubonic plague is really no worse than cholera, and most people don’t die.)

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  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    One disturbing trend I’ve noticed lately is a growing number of people who got one dose of the vaccine, but never went back to get the second.

    My own county is very high for partially vaccinated people (71.9%) but is lagging for fully vaccinated (46.9%).

    In a way, this makes even less sense to me than people who refuse to get the vaccine entirely.

    This may become an issue soon, given that being fully vaccinated seems to protect you from Delta and Delta+, but half-vaccinated seems to offer significantly reduced protection.

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Perhaps the new tact to take is for liberals to actively discourage those who have yet to be vaccinated from doing so and say the quiet part out loud, that we want conservatives to get the virus and die. Let the 180-ism of modern conservatism being for whatever libs are against take over.

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  4. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Not the best example. I don’t think there’s an effective vaccine for bubonic plague, and even with modern treatments the death rate is atrocious. We control it by virtue of better sanitation, which helps keep rats, and their fleas, away from people.

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  5. Kathy says:

    One thing I wonder is what the vaccination rate is among minorities. Now and then a small item says it’s lagging, but not much is made of it. Some items try to explain vaccine hesitancy, others say they simply don’t get the time away from work to get a vaccination appointment.

    Aside from that, there are plenty in the conservative/Republican camp who are not getting vaccinated. A tragic case of casting pearls before swine.

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  6. Lounsbury says:

    Regrettably the documentary history of the 1918 Pandemic rather says that it’s a deep tradition in the USA to be actively retarded about public health actions like mask wearing.

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  7. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    Bubonic plague is easily prevented and treated with antibiotics, which is why we’ll never have another Great Plague.

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  8. Michael Cain says:

    @Kathy:

    No vaccines that have been shown to be effective, but the tetracycline family of antibiotics stops Y. Pestis cold. IIRC, the US Strategic National Stockpile has some millions of doses tucked away in case of a large plague outbreak.

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  9. gVOR08 says:

    Saw a writer, I forget who, point out that if you walk through cemeteries you see a lot of graves of infants and young children. But almost none with dates of death after the 50s. Vaccination.

    Going in last year, I expected Trump to be useless, but I thought he’d let the bureaucracy handle it and take credit if anything good happened. It never occurred to me that he, and my Gov. DeUseless, would activeluy interfere with public health measures, much less run on interfering. As low an opinion as I have of Republicans, I constantly find that they’re even worse.

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  10. Argon says:

    Viruses, like honey Badgers, don’t give a sh!t … about your politics or metaphysical beliefs.

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  11. Kathy says:

    @Argon:

    I don’t know about that. It seems to have a great predilection for maskholes and hubris.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Seth Rogan on one of Conan’s final shows made the point that we’re in this odd moment when virtually overnight the people not wearing masks are the smart ones.

    Seattle is still mask country in grocery stores and lines for coffee shops. It’s definitely politicized, in a “well, if the morons in Western Idaho won’t wear masks, we’ll just wear ours harder!“, but it’s a harmless dumb.

    If it’s even dumb at all. I’m not comfortable when I see @Stormy Dragon reference “Delta and Delta+”. At some point, we are going to get a breakthrough variant.

    Also, do I want to see most people’s faces? I mean, really? If they have faces, then they probably have feelings, and that makes it harder to dehumanize them.

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  13. Matt says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I know a few people who only have had one vaccine dose. I’ve had conversations with one of them about COVID and he knows it can have horrible lingering effects (mentioned them himself). He can’t really articulate why he hasn’t gotten the second shot. He’s vulnerable to GOP/conservative talking points though. When George Floyd was mentioned he immediately went to the talking points about Floyd being on drugs and how they would of killed him anyway. That Floyd was an ebil criminal passing off counterfeit money etc. Another way to trigger him is to talk about immigration. Which can be almost funny because he’s Hispanic and only a few generations from being an illegal himself…Seriously guys if the GOP would stop being outright racist and stupid a whole lot of minorities would have no problems voting Republican.

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  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: It’s not that I WANT them to get sick and die, it’s just that the drought is affecting my garden plot and fwks take a lot of water and time to grow. I’d really rather have tomatoes anyway.

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  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher: If they have faces, then they probably have feelings, and that makes it harder to dehumanize them.

    A thumbs up for the chuckle.

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  16. Kathy says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    @Matt:

    Coincidentally, I talked on the phone with a coworker who’s getting her second dose next week, and she was anxious about it. I told her of the mild shoulder pain I got, and urged her to get the second dose. I pointed out no side effects from the vaccine would be even 1% as bad as getting COVID, nor last as long. I hope that helped.

    As to masks, I’ll buck the science on the side of caution, and stick to my plan to keep wearing a mask in public, especially at work, until cases in the country drop down to under 100 per day (right now they climbed to over 5000, from a low of 1000 at the end of May), and I won’t eat a restaurant or go to a movie theater until they drop below 50 (and even then, I’ll wear a mask at the movies if I do).

    Since that is likely to happen around the time of cold and flu season, I might delay dropping the masks then. It’s a good thing I’ve grown used to wearing them.

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  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Perhaps the new tact to take is for liberals to actively discourage those who have yet to be vaccinated from doing so and say the quiet part out loud, that we want conservatives to get the virus and die.

    Hmmmm, I need to change what I have on the back of my truck (it’s 5 mos past due for a change) and this has me intrigued. I had been thinking “Pro life is pro vaccine” but maybe “Make a Lib happy, don’t get vaxxed and die” would work better?

    Nah, I still like, “I’ve got 5G, how ’bout you?”

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  18. al Ameda says:

    The way Trump politicized EVERYTHING he touched is going to to be the gift that keeps on giving for the forseeable future. The problem is the politicization of a deadly serious pandemic matters a hell of a lot more than politicizing Mr. Potato Head.

    A couple of observations:
    (1) Even my in-his-late 90s father – a retired public safety employee, a lifelong conservative, a 2-time Trump voter, an ardent FoxNews viewer, a guy who believes that the masks are bullsh*t – even my dad … got vaccinated twice.
    (2) It may be a waste of time but Democrats s/b running ads reminding people that Trump and all those geaseball propagandists – Trump, and Ingraham, Carlson, Hannity – are vaccinated. Probably have no effect, but … put that out there. I realize that we’re trying to shame the shameless, but …

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  19. Jax says:

    A lot of lives could be saved if the FDA were to approve the vaccines for regular use and schools could require it for students to come back this fall. Yeah, it would piss off the Trumpies, but whatever. I’m done caring about their feelings.

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  20. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Jax:

    I’m done worrying about them. There has to come a point where people bear the consequences of bad decisions. That point is probably here. These unvaccinated folks appear to be only bringing harm to themselves, or at worst other unvaccinated folks who also chose to put themselves into that position. The rest of us are protected and don’t seem to be at risk because of their choices based on the numbers, so let them make the choice.

    If they end up in an ICU gasping for breath, well, they chose that and I can’t find it in myself to feel sorry for them. They are not my (or any of our) problem to fix.

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  21. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: I saw one analysis that says the black-white divide disappears if you parse by income instead

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  22. MarkedMan says:

    I find it interesting that you think this is about politics. To me this is about competence. Generating anger and nonsense is how incompetent people distract from their incompetence. If they were capable of organizing a response and executing well they would have done so. They are just not capable.

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  23. Sleeping Dog says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    I came to that point weeks ago and even told a friend directly who has to this point avoided getting vaxxed, that while I didn’t want to see him ill, I wouldn’t feel sorry if he caught it. I’d feel bad for his husband, but not for him.

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  24. Jax says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I’m not gonna lie, I hope their stupidity hurts them. It’s too bad it’s less likely to hurt those who have continually egged it on, like Trump and the rest. Trump got his vaccine on the sly right before he left office, we’re not gonna get lucky enough that it will hit him again. We’re dependent on a diet heavy on hamberder’s and Diet Coke.
    😐

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  25. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Jax:

    I don’t even wish hurt on them. Ideally they’d see the light and stop being morons, but I think there is a point where you have to let people make stupid decisions and suffer the consequences. We can’t live their lives for them and as long as they aren’t taking other innocent folks with them, I think we’re there.

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  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    I join with my fellow sociopath, @HarvardLaw92:, in not giving a single fuck about anti-vax morons getting sick and dying. Look, the shots are free, the facts are clear, if you’d rather trust Trump or Jesus than science, okay, we’ve done all we can, more than we should have had to do, fuck you and enjoy the ICU.

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  27. Jax says:

    @HarvardLaw92: They will continue to take innocent folks with them, those who for whatever reason can’t take the vaccine or are immunocompromised/elderly. But we’ve done what we can. You can lead a horse to water….

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  28. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Here’s a thought…

    If the insurrectionists on Jan 6th were all Antifa and BLM actors… Then maybe those 3000 deaths per day are actually Dems and undocumented immigrants.

    I think Fox and OAN could spin that up in no time.

    After all, good trumpist conservatives don’t need vaccines and don’t die, because of course they don’t.

    ‘Merika!

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  29. Jax says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: It gives me mental whiplash thinking about how most of the “talking heads” of the GOP are blaming 1/6 on the left, and the virus is No Big Deal, but they’ve all gotten their shots and shot down any kind of investigation of the insurrection that might lead to….themselves.

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  30. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The problem is “No man is an island, entire of itself.” The more the virus circulates among the unvaccinated, the higher the chances of ever more contagious and deadlier variants, one of which might cause more breakthrough infections among those of us already vaccinated.

    This may wind up with constant mask use, distancing, etc. for the part of the year it takes the drug companies to develop the booster for the new variants.

    Not in perpetuity, but the pandemic will extend far longer.

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  31. Mikey says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Easy to say all that until the person you’re talking about is your mom.

    My mom, 78, cancer survivor, lifelong history of respiratory problems, has been convinced by the people in her crazy-ass church that the vaccine is bad. She refuses to get it. She’s not a COVID denialist, she is good with masks and hand sanitizer and all that, but not the vaccine. My brother and I have pleaded with her but to no avail.

    So now I am trying to get back to Michigan so I can see her before the Delta variant does.

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  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kathy:
    We’d need world herd immunity and that is clearly not going to happen. The US unvaxxed population is a tiny pool for variant-growing relative to India, China, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.

    Here’s a question, BTW. If the Sinovac is so ineffective, just how did China manage to so quickly reduce its Covid deaths? I suspect Beijing is keeping some very big secrets. Like big holes filled with bodies kind of secrets.

    @Mikey:
    Yeah, that would be tough, obviously. I just spent a week with my demented mother-in-law, and there’s nothing like seeing your 64 year-old wife sitting next to her 87 year-old mother who has entirely forgotten her six decades of marriage – the two of them look an awful lot alike – to force you to think seriously about old age.

    I suspect that in many cases old people losing ground in terms of autonomy, just start reflexively asserting what control they can. TBH I understand that.

    I watched Stephen Colbert’s interview with Robert Duvall and it was encouraging. Duvall’s 90. Maybe his speech is a bit slower than it once was, but he’s all there, mentally intact. A timely reminder to me that while age and death are inevitable, there are many different paths to the final good-bye.

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  33. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    My father had all his marbles till a few days before he died, which was well past age 94.

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  34. grumpy realist says:

    Stupidity should hurt. I had at least three members of my family (both parents and an uncle) have permanent physical problems because of contracting illnesses (polio, measles etc.) for which there were no vaccines at the time. I have no sympathy for anti-vaxxers.

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  35. charon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    China has just been very aggressive about lockdowns, quarantines, protective gear etc.

    They do not have enough isolation to keep massive numbers of deaths hidden.

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  36. Kathy says:

    Old one, but how’s this for politicizing vaccines: Iran forbids imports of vaccines from the US and Britain.

    No Moderna, Pfizer, J&J, or AstraZeneca.

    Iran developed its own vaccine, about which I can get no efficacy info. I suppose they can get vaccines from China and Russia.

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  37. Teve says:

    A week ago or so ago Kevin Drum made the point that conservatives weren’t more resistant of COVID vaccines than they are of other vaccines, the abnormality is that liberals were much more supportive of this vaccine than normal. Considering that all week I’ve seen conservatives on Facebook mocking liberals for understanding that Global Warming is real, I understand the conservative resistance—they’re often uneducated. But I don’t understand why liberals support this vaccine more than other vaccines.

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  38. Clif says:

    No mention of the demographics behind those who get the shot or not? According to 46 it’s those who remember what happened to the “Tuskegee airmen”…and the Latinx (he said that, rhymed with Kleenex) that don’t want to get deported. It was funny how he really said something about “remembering” while he made that gaffe over the Tuskegee experiments before disrespecting the Hispanic community again.

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  39. Michael Reynolds says:

    @charon:
    It doesn’t add up. You can’t lock down a country of over a billion people. Most of China is still rural and poor, I am very suspicious of the idea that they got that degree of compliance. It would have required extremely effective, very fast communication, universal compliance with masking and social distancing, and even then, no, I don’t buy it. It does not compute. New Zealand? Sure. Israel? OK. But a continent-sized country of 1.4 billion people, large portions of which are extremely remote and frequently rather backward? Does not compute.

    I’ll bet you that within 5 years we discover that China suffered many, many times the 4600 deaths they claim. Ballpark? 10 million. They’re lying.

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  40. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    You can’t lock down a country of over a billion people.

    Not for long, no. But it only takes 2 or 3 weeks of genuine quarantine and lockdown to eradicate transmission. I could believe that China managed to do that, whereas the US futzed around with voluntary compliance and zero travel bans. In which case most of the deaths in China actually resulted in reinfection from elsewhere…

    Not saying that’s how it happened — just that it isn’t incredible.

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  41. Scott O says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    “You can’t lock down a country of over a billion people.”
    Why can’t that be done? You can’t lock down everyone of course but the early reports we heard about Covid abatement measures from China is that they were very harsh. Guards outside apartment buildings, only one person from each unit allowed out once or twice a week for 2 hours to shop. Not saying I wish I lived there but they can probably lock down quite effectively.

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