Will the Delta Variant Shut Down the US Economy Again?

Not likely unless the authorities panic
August 21, 2021 Updated: August 25, 2021


People look at the steep rise in COVID infections and worry—some about their health but still more about their livelihoods, for some in authority have again begun to talk about lockdowns and quarantines.

There is, of course, always a chance that panic will spread in Washington or some state capital, but the data to date doesn’t justify such levels of fear, much less such extreme measures to restrict economic activity in the coming weeks and months.

Today’s fears—about personal health and the economy—have four roots. First is the stark rise in infections, up 480 percent since last June nationwide to 66,606 per day. Second is disappointment about the national inoculation rate. Third is the news that some who have received inoculations have nonetheless tested positive for COVID, what the media terms “breakthrough” cases. And finally, the latest concern comes from a study showing that those vaccinated who contract the virus can carry as much of it as the unvaccinated when they become infected, and as a consequence can spread the disease more readily than was previously thought. Each item reasonably gives cause for concern, but taken in context, nothing could justify draconian countermeasures.

The rise in infections is certainly striking. It is, however, important to note that the economy has opened more than it was only a few months ago. Large gatherings are much more common, and such events will inevitably bring infected people into contact with others who are susceptible and so raise the tally of infections over the very low rates of last spring.

Testing has also become much more widespread. Even a few months ago, many who contracted the disease and had mild or no symptoms went undetected. Many still do, but fewer than before, and that adds to the tallies on infections as much as any actual spread of the virus. To be sure, such a consideration can’t account for the entire rise, but it might make the figures look more frightening.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the recent figure is still well down from more than 250,000 infections per day last January and amounts to .02 percent of the population, far less than the seasonal flu each year, which, according to the CDC, infects up to 45 million per season and kills on average 60,000, a death rate—not an infection rate—of .02 percent. Today’s fear clearly is less about present reality than an anticipation of more trouble.

Epoch Times Photo
The Michigan State Capitol is seen in the background as people in vehicles protest lockdown orders, in Lansing, Mich., on April 15, 2020. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Though many people would like to see a greater portion of the population inoculated against COVID-19, the numbers to date are nonetheless considerable. The CDC reports that the nation has administered 346 million vaccinations, and 166 million Americans are fully vaccinated, about half the population. That percentage is much higher among those over 65 years of age—the part of the population most vulnerable to hospitalization and death should they become infected. Some 80 percent of that population has received a full inoculation. Some 61 percent of those over 18 have received two injections and 59 percent over 12 years of age. Of course, there’s no vaccine for those under 12, and the evidence so far indicates that they hardly need it. So it seems the population is well protected, especially those who need it most. It could be higher, but there is certainly no reason for panic.

Neither should it frighten or surprise that some inoculated people have contracted the disease. It certainly does nothing to cast doubt on vaccine efficacy. No one ever pretended inoculations could offer absolute protection. Besides, the numbers are smaller than the likelihoods announced with the rollouts of the vaccines. The CDC records some 8,054 of these so-called breakthrough cases. Almost one in five of them was asymptomatic. Some 74 percent of them occurred in people over the age of 65, suggesting that the vast majority of “breakthroughs” occurred where some immune weakness exists, if only from the normal aging process. Even including the cases among older people, “breakthroughs” to date constitute only .004 percent of the vaccinated population. The CDC further reports that some 1,587 of these “breakthrough” cases resulted in death. That is .0007 percent of the vaccinated population. The death rate from the seasonal flu is almost 30 times this figure.

The fourth cause of today’s fear comes out of a recent study from Massachusetts. It seems that an examination of “breakthrough” cases made in Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod shows that those few of the vaccinated who contract the virus can spread it as readily as unvaccinated people when they are contaminated. Such news might justify a requirement that even the vaccinated wear masks indoors, but it cannot in any reasonable way justify the sorts of measures that might stall the economy. Even a concern for children, who have no vaccine, can’t justify a lockdown when the data suggest that this particular danger of infection would come from less than one vaccinated adult in 200.

It would seem, then, that the best response to this situation, aside perhaps from a greater use of masks, is not to shut down economic activity and so take away many people’s livelihoods. Rather, it would be to continue efforts to vaccinate as many Americans as possible and then perhaps give an extra vaccination to those with immune problems.

Though the rise in new infections is troubling, it would need to go a lot further than it has before it could reasonably warrant any measures to rein an economy that is otherwise making excellent progress coming back from the effects of last year’s COVID restrictions. Provided, then, there is no failure of nerve in Washington or in state capitals (or no political need to sow panic), the recovery will likely continue despite the ability of the Delta variant to move quickly from one person to another, including a very small part of the vaccinated population.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Milton Ezrati
Milton Ezrati
Milton Ezrati is a contributing editor at The National Interest, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and chief economist for Vested, a New York-based communications firm. Before joining Vested, he served as chief market strategist and economist for Lord, Abbett & Co. He also writes frequently for City Journal and blogs regularly for Forbes. His latest book is "Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Globalization, Demographics, and How We Will Live."