The Covid math of “us” versus “me”

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the Covid crisis has exacerbated the need for America to move from a very self-centered “me” culture into the more compassionate and action-oriented “us” culture required to combat the virus. Listening to the voices raised in protest to such collective action as mandated vaccinations and masking, I have noted that there are even two opposing visions of probability math going on here as well. There is a bad probability-based bet going on in the “me and mine” group that does work, in a sense, most of the time. And therein lies its stubborn opposition to the larger, more scientific probabilistic “bets” that a broader, collective society needs to make to keep us all healthy.

The “me” bet

Since the beginning of this crisis, I have compared the “contra-math” argument as similar to the rationale of a drunk driver. Most people who get into a car while over the legal alcohol limit will “win their bet” for the night. They will get home safely. That unfortunate person who dies in a drunk driving accident is written off as an unlucky “somebody else” and not me. Getting home safely confirms my ability to drive while buzzed, and makes my drunk driving more likely to be repeated.

Likewise, while most of us now know someone who has become very sick with Covid-19, the odds have so far favored that it was my very aged Great Aunt Enid or my overweight, diabetic Cousin Bob. How exactly the virus got to them is lost in the message. Most people still do not understand the exponential math of coronavirus transmission, and so my own unmasked part in passing the virus onto Cousin Bob goes over my head. I personally am not sick today, and my preacher says that God will protect me! (Although it is not hard to find anti-vaccine pastors dying, and most of the 600,000+ dead in the United States were at least culturally religious.)

In short, you will probably win the “do not vaccinate” Covid bet today. And that will make you an expert about Covid treatments tomorrow.

The “us” bet

But from a collective perspective, the numbers are really ugly. Covid killed over 500,000 people in the United States before the effects of the vaccine and better therapeutic measures began to “bend the probability curve” earlier in the spring of 2021. Another 100,000+ people have died since, and hospitalizations due to the Delta variant are on the upswing. We have enough data now to clearly demonstrate that over 90% of recent Covid hospitalizations and deaths are of unvaccinated people.

Here is just one correlation showing the power of reaching high vaccination levels. Although other factors are also at work, the relationship between hospitalizations per 100,000 people in each state and percentage of the population vaccinated is pretty stark. Note that the states are also color-coded by their 2020 presidential vote.

Covid hospitalizations

Data from Becker’s Hospital Review and, compiled and visualized by the author.

The “us bet” is to go with the larger probabilities, and that means vaccination as the primary way out. But the “us math” has its own weaknesses. Even in Vermont, with its incredibly high vaccination rate and collective approach to virus mitigation, there are people dying from Covid. I have likened this to the reality that sometimes safe drivers, driving in safe conditions, still die in automobile accidents. But these sad events are at the “lottery winner” level of improbability, a far different place from the high-probability world of drunk drivers.

The reality is that we can’t save everybody from this aggressive virus. However, the dismal vaccination rate and horrible crisis over critical care hospital beds in Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi are not the product of mere chance or some uncontrollable natural variable, or even avenging angels. This is governmental failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens, pure and simple. Less pure and simple perhaps, this is negligent homicide. Up to 90,000 of the recent 100,000 deaths may well have been preventable through collective action, and another 100,000 mostly preventable deaths may yet be facing us before the year is out.

The Florida outlier

As an aging Florida resident of relatively recent residency myself, the very high hospitalization rate of Florida relative to its middling vaccination rate (the obvious outlier in the graph above) is of particular concern to me. Like any correlation of this type, there are certainly multiple causes of this anomaly. But I will highlight two.

First of all, Florida is still riding an early statistical bump on vaccination rates because Governor Ron DeSantis targeted the 55-and-over population first, starting early in January before opposition to the vaccination became politically chic in his circles. Indeed, he directed the first vaccines to the most politically-connected and well-off (and mostly white) 55+ communities, while more diverse areas like mine were scrambling with jury-rigged telephone hotline lotteries for securing scarce vaccine appointments throughout the spring. As a result, seniors in Florida, except the most intransigent, are now more likely to be vaccinated than in other “red states.” That history has bumped Florida up the “Y axis” of vaccination rates.

But then DeSantis opened up the state to, first, spring breakers, and then to summer travelers and mass festivities, even as the Delta variant of the coronavirus started filling hospital beds to capacity levels. The governor has responded to the crisis in hospitalizations by now pushing the therapeutic Regeneron in drive-up clinics. While Regeneron has shown some effectiveness in moderating Covid symptoms, the existing vaccines have now demonstrated hundreds of millions of individual proofs of safely preventing major hospitalization and death, and at a far cheaper cost.

Cultists are de-programmed one at a time

Fortunately, the hospitalization crisis and more evidence of death has begun to hit home in my Florida county. In August, vaccinations increased to twice the rate of June and July. Employer mandates have also begun to have an effect in coaxing the reluctant to get the jab.

One of the stranger internet memes floating around is a conspiracy theory that Dr. Anthony Fauci has somehow engineered the coronavirus so that it only infects unvaccinated people. That bizarre failure of logic may well be apocryphal, but it is on par with so much of the anti-scientific and ahistorical baloney that literally enrages opponents of Covid mitigations.

In a pre-Trump world the question of whether a civilized, literate society should collectively mandate proven-safe vaccinations for schoolchildren against deadly communicable diseases would have generated an overwhelming “Of course! We have done this for 70 years or more!” I can show you my smallpox vaccination scar if you’d like to be reminded.

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