Aug 2, 2021 - Podcasts

A reality check on the Delta variant

You may have seen the very scary headlines this weekend about the COVID-19 Delta variant. One of those was out of Florida, which reported its highest number of new COVID cases since the pandemic began. And last Wednesday, Texas reported more than 10,000 new COVID cases, its highest total for a single day since February. In D.C., the indoor mask mandate for those vaccinated went back into effect, as it did for many other parts of the country.

  • Plus, the Biden administration’s messy COVID messaging.
  • And, why the pandemic means less long-distance romance.

Guests: Julie Rovner, Kaiser Health News' chief Washington correspondent and host of What the Health podcast, and Axios' Erica Pandey.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Alex Sugiura, and Michael Hanf. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Monday and - it’s the 2nd of August. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Here’s what we’re watching today: the Biden administration’s messy Covid messaging. And: why the pandemic means less long-distance romance. But first, today’s One Big Thing: a reality check on the Delta variant.

You may have seen the pretty scary headlines this weekend about the Delta variant of COVID-19. One of those was out of Florida, which hit the highest daily total of new COVID cases since the pandemic began. And last Wednesday, Texas reported more than 10,000 new COVID cases, its highest total for a single day since February. And here in D.C., the indoor mask mandate for those vaccinated went back into effect, as it did for many other parts of the country. And so my big question after all of this is: What is going on with the Delta variant? For the first half of today's podcast, we're going to be talking about what we know and what we do not know, and how the messaging from the Biden administration has added to the confusion. With Julie Rovner, who's Chief Washington Correspondent for Kaiser Health News and host of KHN’s What the Health podcast. Good morning, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Good morning!

NIALA: Can we start with the breakthrough cases? Just how likely are those for people who are vaccinated?

JULIE: They're actually still very unlikely. They're more likely for Delta than they were for previous variants. And there's a bunch of reasons that we can get into if you want to. But, you know, we keep seeing these sort of alarming headlines, but the things that we know about the vaccines, they still work really well, including against the Delta variant. Even if you get a breakthrough case, your chances of being hospitalized or, god forbid, dying, are way smaller, like 25 times smaller if you're vaccinated than if you're not. And, you know, we saw all these sort of crazy headlines about how, you know, it's as contagious as chicken pox, which it is.

NIALA: Is that true?

JULIE: Yes, it has-it call, you know, the, the, R-naught factor, which is how many people on average you infect if you have something. And chickenpox is one of the most contagious diseases around, you basically just have to be in the room with somebody with chicken pox in order to catch it. That's why parents used to have the chickenpox parties with their little kids. So they would get it as a kid and wouldn't get sick or later. Which most people have stopped doing. But yes, the, the, the R-naught of Delta is way higher than of earlier variants. I think it might help to, to think about Delta as a different disease. Maybe COVID-21. Uh, it, it spreads differently. It is more transmissible. It can cause more severe problems. You know, everybody has sort of learned, well, you could be outside, you can be in a room with somebody for 15 minutes and not catch it. We've sort of internalized all these ways that COVID spreads. That's not how the Delta variant spreads. But as, as I said, at the beginning, if you're vaccinated, you're still less likely to get it. And if you do get it, you're way less likely to get really sick.

NIALA: When we look at places that have previously been hit hard by the Delta variant, that are sort of ahead of us, like the U.K. and India, it seems the cases tapered off faster than scientists thought they were going to. Do we have any way of knowing if that's going to happen here in the U.S.?

JULIE: We don't, but you're absolutely correct. The two places that Delta variant has hit really hit a number of places, but obviously in India is where we saw at first and it was dramatic. And it was pretty clear that it was way more contagious in India. I mean, you know, there were lots of reports of people who were just sort of generically near somebody and got sick, which is not the way we understood COVID as spreading. Cases skyrocketed, but then they plummeted and we've seen pretty much the same thing in England. So there's sort of a hope that that will be the same thing, you know, even if we have this Delta wave, which we're obviously at the beginning of here in the United States, that it may go up fast and then come down fast. Obviously, there's a couple of, you know, at least a month or two where it-that's where it's likely to be really bad, but it may not be as bad as it was over the winter where cases, remember, started to crest right after Thanksgiving. And didn't really start to go down until February.

NIALA: We'll be back in 15 seconds with more from Julie Rovner, who's the Chief Washington Correspondent for Kaiser Health News. And we're going to talk about the Biden administration's messaging around COVID.

NIALAWelcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

[tape] DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: We're looking not, I believe to lockdown, but we're looking to some pain and suffering in the future because we're seeing the cases go up.

NIALA: That's Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking yesterday on ABC This Week. Messaging around the Delta variant in this phase of the pandemic, has been confusing. And to unpack this all, I'm continuing my conversation with Julie Rovner, who's the Chief Washington Correspondent of Kaiser Health News. Julie, as we just heard Dr. Fauci say, we're going to be-see some more pain and suffering. You were just talking about how long this phase of the pandemic might last, is that what he's talking about?

JULIE: Yeah. And I think he's also talking about the fact that because this Delta variant is so much more contagious, for the people who are not vaccinated yet, more of those people are going to get sick now than might've gotten sick back during the winter when there were less contagious variants floating around.

NIALA: The messaging from the CDC last week was... a mess. How has that made our understanding of this, those of us who are not scientists, just the general public, how has that made it more complicated?

JULIE: Well, the CDC is walking a tightrope, as is the entire Biden administration. They want people to get vaccinated. What they're worried about is with all of this information about breakthrough cases, people who were unvaccinated will see it and say, well, why should I get vaccinated if the vaccine doesn't work? So they're having to point out, yes, the vaccine does work, but it's all the more important that you get vaccinated now, because this new variant is so much more transmissible. Part of the frustration is, people should be alarmed, but they shouldn't be panicking. Um, and sort of the wrong people are being alarmed. Um, mostly people who are vaccinated. I am fully vaccinated, I have been since the end of April. But I'm going back to wearing masks in places where it’s theoretically still optional. It's, you know, it's, it's scary and I'm...a little bit worried about it.

NIALA: Julie Rovner is Kaiser Health News’ Chief Washington correspondent. You can also hear her on the What the Health podcast. Julie, thank you [JULIE: Thank you] for breaking all of this down for us.

JULIE: Sure.

NIALA: I know there’s been a lot of COVID on the pod today. But we wanted to end today’s episode by talking about how the pandemic is having a surprising effect on our lives in a not depressing way. Last week, we talked about how the pandemic has changed our friendships. So it's interesting this effect COVID has had on one kind of romantic relationship, the long distance relationship. About 4 million married Americans, and many more unmarried, live away from their partners. Long distance relationships have been on the rise in recent decades, but Axios’ Erica Pandy says the pandemic may be halting that trend. Erica, work in particular has been dividing couples for a long time. How has that changing now?

ERICA PANDEY: It's become a cliched Hollywood romcom plot line, right? You've got the boyfriend or the girlfriend in New York and the big job in San Francisco and are you going to pick love or work? And now, more and more companies are saying you can have the job and also live wherever, you know, kind of have your cake and eat it too. And for so long, we've been putting relationships on the remote back-burner so we could do in-person work. Now we're just flipping it. We're making the long distance relationship with our bosses and our colleagues, and having the in-person relationship with your spouse.

NIALA: So this is sort of an upside down trend. How is it affecting how companies plan for the future?

ERICA: It's yet another cohort that companies have to think about when they're thinking about their workplace strategy, right? Like before it was our working parents, we want to make sure that they have flexibility to take care of kids. Now it's all those people who are in long distance relationships or marriages, who may have been, you know, silently suffering and looking for other jobs in the past nut now they have a lot more power. They can just go get another remote jobs. So companies have to think about, do I have a lot of people who want that flexibility to be in their romantic relationships? And should I offer it to them? Because if I don't, I might lose that talent.

NIALA: There's also data that says almost a quarter of Americans meet their partners at work. Does that mean we'll see that trend change also?

ERICA: Right, that's a big part of-of the social component of offices, right? You meet-you meet close friends, you potentially meet your future spouse at work, and if emote work is on the rise, that might go down. I personally love to see in America where people are meeting more of their spouses, you know, at parties, with friends. Or at a community organizing event, Maybe we’ll, we'll see a future where people are meeting their future spouse around their social events or, you know, around their community. And I think that could be a really cool thing.

NIALA: Erica Pandey is the author of Axios’ What's Next newsletter. Thanks Erica.

ERICA: Thanks Niala.

NIALA: That’s all for this first Monday of August! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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