When John Barry spoke to us in March, as millions of vaccinations made it possible to see an end to the country’s COVID-19 nightmare, he tempered such optimism with scientific reality: “The virus is in charge.”
Mr. Barry meant new virus strains could derail the world’s progress. The following month, the first cases of the delta variant were detected in India.
And the coronavirus would continue to have plenty of human allies and enablers. Through a combination of scientific ignorance fueled by streams of misinformation, political fanaticism and plain old stubbornness or complacency, the vaccine-averse are swamping hospitals.
Many new patients are quite young and otherwise healthy. This has led to an outpouring of regrets, as the sick and dying implore family and friends to quit denying reality and get a vaccine shot.
Despite having enough vaccine doses to inoculate every eligible person, the United States is instead witnessing needless suffering and death. The summer surge is recalling the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 before several solid vaccines offered a way out. It has pushed the total U.S. death toll past 610,000.
The overwhelming majority of coronavirus ICU patients are unvaccinated, according to hospital officials nationwide and the Centers for Disease Control.
In Florida, to name one delta hotspot, more people are hospitalized with COVID-19 today than at any point in the pandemic. Yet Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis refuses to allow local governments and schools to impose precautionary health mandates.
In this episode of History As It Happens, Mr. Barry, the historian and author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” returns to reflect upon the past several months and to discuss the probability that the delta variant will not be the last variant of this pandemic.
Here is part of Mr. Barry’s conversation with podcast host Martin Di Caro:
On whether the delta variant is deadlier, and not only more contagious, than the first coronavirus strain:
“It’s not definitive. There are certainly hints that delta is at least incrementally more virulent and more dangerous. Obviously the viral load is tremendously increased, and there is a correlation between viral load and severity of illness.”
Should we expect more variants before the pandemic subsides?
“[Delta] is not the last one. We can hope that it’s the worst case. In past pandemics that we know about in some detail going back to 1889, 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009, in every instance the pandemic got worse before it got better. They were all caused by a new virus entering the human population. The virus adapted and became better at infecting people… and then you’d go through a cycle where either the virus calmed down a little bit or human immune systems became able to recognize it better and fight it better… and the pandemic passed. That will probably happen this time around.”
On the growing anger toward people who avoided vaccination.
“There is a lot of anger among people directed against those who, out of… stupidity in most cases. Not every case. But the most stubborn are the ones who are, frankly, paying no attention to reality or data… I’d like to see what happens when reality sinks in, with 97% of those hospitalized being unvaccinated.”
On Mr. DeSantis’ refusal to allow local mask mandates as COVID-19 hospitalizations soar.
“This is a guy who is more interested in personal political agenda than he is in saving people’s lives. There is no other way to put it. He is trying to inherit the Trump mantle.”
For the rest of historian John Barry’s insights about the COVID summer of 2021, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.