Trump's Vaporware Vaccine

Plus: How our COVID response stacks up to the rest of the world.

1. ABG: Always. Be. Gaslighting.

One of the many irresponsible things President Trump has done over the course of the last several months is talk about the progress of various COVID vaccines in terms that bear no relation to reality.

For instance:

September 15: “It could be four weeks, it could be eight weeks.”

September 16: “We think we can start [vaccinating Americans] sometime in October.”

October 4: “We're weeks away from a vaccine. . . . I spoke to the scientists that are in charge. They will have the vaccine very soon.

October 7: This time, it was Mike Pence claiming, “We’re going to have a vaccine in less than a year, in unheard of time, we're producing tens of millions of doses.”

None of this is correct.

America has not yet been four or eight weeks away from having a vaccine.

We are not currently “producing tens of millions of doses” of this nonexistent vaccine.

There is no vaccine as of yet.

This is not to say that Operation Warp Speed is a failure. David Shaywitz makes a convincing case that the organization of OWS is the single most effective action the federal government has taken in response to the pandemic. Good on Trump for that.

But it is pretty clear that the president and his administration are trying to create the mis-belief that a vaccine is either about to be released, or is in the process of being released.

Take a look at this HHS press release from last Friday.

The subject is a new partnership between the federal government and CVS and Walgreens to handle distribution of a vaccine for people in nursing homes.

On the one hand: This is smart policy. A vaccine presents three challenges:

  • Development

  • Production

  • Distribution

Each of these is a tremendously heavy lift.

We know how hard it is to develop an effective and safe vaccine. But production is no picnic. If the vaccine requires two inoculations, we will have to spin up a more than half a billion doses in reasonably short order. It’s hard to make half a billion of anything with strict quality control.

Distribution is hard, too. You have to get the vaccines where the people are. Some of the potential vaccines have strict environmental requirements (meaning they need serious temperature control).

We want to be attacking these three jobs in parallel, not in serial. Which is why it’s good that the government is already moving down the road with CVS and Walgreens on distribution.

But . . . Read this press release.

Here’s the lead:

To meet the Trump Administration's Operation Warp Speed (OWS) goals, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Defense (DoD ) today announced agreements with CVS and Walgreens to provide and administer COVID-19 vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities (LTCF) nationwide with no out-of-pocket costs. Protecting especially vulnerable Americans has been a critical part of the Trump Administration’s work to combat COVID-19, and LTCF residents may be part of the prioritized groups for initial COVID-19 vaccination efforts until there are enough doses available for every American who wishes to be vaccinated.

The Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program provides complete management of the COVID-19 vaccination process. This means LTCF residents and staff across the country will be able to safely and efficiently get vaccinated once vaccines are available and recommended for them, if they have not been previously vaccinated. It will also minimize the burden on LTCF sites and jurisdictional health departments of vaccine handling, administration, and fulfilling reporting requirements.   

“Protecting the vulnerable has been the number one priority of the Trump Administration’s response to COVID-19, and that commitment will continue through distributing a safe and effective vaccine earliest to those who need it most,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “Our unprecedented public-private partnership with CVS and Walgreens will provide convenient and free vaccination to residents of nursing homes across America, another historic achievement in our efforts to get a safe and effective vaccine to Americans as fast as possible.”

That’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Look at the wording:

  • “provide and administer COVID-19 vaccines . . . with no out-of-pocket costs”

  • “until there are enough doses available for every American”

  • “provides complete management of the COVID-19 vaccination process”

  • “will be able to safely and efficiently get vaccinated once vaccines are available”

  • “will provide convenient and free vaccination to residents of nursing homes across America”

It’s all very exciting! Until you get to literally the last paragraph:

Currently there are no COVID-19 vaccines that have been authorized or approved by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

Ohhhh . . . .

It’s fine if the president wants to gaslight his supporters about The Wall being finished “soon” and paid for by Mexico. I mean, it’s not fine. But whatever.

It is much less okay for the president to try to lie the country into thinking that there’s a COVID vaccine right around the corner when there isn’t one.

For the last nine months, people have been dying because of this man’s lies. And they still are.

2. Comparing COVID Outcomes

There are lots of ways to look at America’s results in handling COVID and compare them to the rest of the world. Some of these lenses are specious. Some are obvious. Some are interesting.

Reader David Wheat is a data visualization nerd and he put together a graphic which is highly interesting.

Here’s David explaining what’s going on:

At this point, you either think the U.S. is the greatest at COVID or the worst. So, I don't think there's any mind-changing to do here (the topic is highly inelastic, to rip off FiveThirtyEight).

But I hadn't seen anyone compare the U.S.-COVID results alongside with a country's relative wealth.  So, I plotted Deaths per 100K on the X axis and Cases per 100K on the Y.  Then I used Per Capita GDP for the size of the bubble. Bigger bubble, richer country.  The very worst place to be on the chart would be far upper right, and to be a large circle.  That would mean you were a wealthy country with plenty of resources but hadn't done a good job at keeping people from dying. (Cases per 100K is less useful, given different levels of testing by country. But to do a bubble chart like this you need three measures, so I included it. )

The U.S. is pretty close to that unenviable position of right-ish and rich. Everybody knows that Belgium is counting deaths more liberally than any other country (we should probably all count them like the Belgians do).  If you were to omit Belgium and Peru, you'd have the second version of the chart. (see below)

But even on the first version of the chart, I find it more interesting to ask, "Who is the U.S. comparable to in protecting its citizens?"

The answer to that question is the neighboring bubbles:  We have performed most closely to Brazil, Chili, Spain, Panama, Columbia, and Argentina.  And since we're most interested in Deaths per 100K, you just move down the chart vertically and can add in the UK, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Italy, and Sweden

But then if you pay attention to the Per Capita GDP size of the bubble, you see that there's a big red USA bubble surrounded by (mostly), smaller-to-much smaller bubbles. In my source, the U.S. is 9th worst in the world in COVID deaths per 100K (countries > 1,000,000 population AND available GDP data).  And also the 8th wealthiest country in the world (same filters) in GDP per Capita.  

It's a message you and many others have been saying until you're hoarse.  There is simply no excuse for our country to have let this many people die. With many, many more still on the way to the grave.

If you want to see the relationship in even greater detail, this is what the graphic looks like when you pull the two worst-outcome countries—Belgium and Peru—off the board so that you can see the other separations more clearly:

There is no reasonable way to read this other than as an indictment of the American government.

3. Mookie

This is a true story: Back in the summer of 2018 I was lucky enough to attend a baseball game with George Will and Tony La Russa. One of the few things I worked up the courage to ask La Russa about was Mookie Betts, who was at that point en route to winning the MVP, the Gold Glove, the Silver Slugger, and the batting title—all in the same season.

La Russa smiled like a little boy on Christmas morning when he talked about Betts. Couldn’t say enough about how great he was, both as a player and a guy.

This longread about Mookie in the Athletic is wonderful:

In October 2013, Orioles manager Buck Showalter visited the Arizona Fall League to check out Baltimore’s top prospects, who were grouped with Boston’s. He became enamored with a second baseman who had just celebrated his 21st birthday — Betts. Showalter studied the way he interacted with teammates and took extra grounders every day. He felt compelled to introduce himself.

He loved the intent with which Betts listened when he explained all sorts of tiny fascinations within the sport. This was a young man actually interested in the fact that most warning tracks are minutely different. This was a young man who zealously scanned his eyes around every new stadium.

“His substance was his style,” Showalter said. “You were drawn to the way he separated himself. He was just engaged in every part of the game. He was very cognizant of what was going on around him, situations. (When) the ball was hit to him, you never saw him have that panic movement. I was drawn to him all fall.”

Eight months later, Betts made his major-league debut. Because Dustin Pedroia was entrenched at second base, the Red Sox had quickly converted him into an outfielder. In one of Betts’ first games, he threw out a runner at home but overshot the cutoff man, allowing a trailing runner to advance. Between innings, he apologized to Arnie Beyeler, then the Red Sox first base and outfield coach. . . .

During 2017 spring training, Davis asked Betts about his goal for the year.

“You know how you have those really good weeks, and then you have two, three really bad weeks, and you’re kind of up and down, up and down?” Betts asked him. “I want to minimize the two or three really bad weeks. Maybe it’s two or three really bad days instead.”

Davis was dumbfounded. A 24-year-old had already learned a lesson many players never do. “Smartest answer I ever heard,” he said. . . .

Eight months into Betts’ 13-year tenure, the Dodgers’ lineup does behave a bit more like him. Bellinger is having his first good postseason. Seager is having his first great one. Both have been more patient. The team bounces back better from bad games. Turner has long served as a stabilizing force, but Betts is something else: a superstar who behaves like a substitute. . . .

Seven years ago, Showalter saw the beginnings of it. Seventy-nine times over the next five years, he observed Betts from the opposing dugout, falling further and further in love with the way he grew to lead his team.

“He really understands the way his words carry, and he doesn’t use them callously,” Showalter said. “But, all of the sudden, if Mookie weighs in on something, everybody goes: ‘What did he say?’ Some people take that power and get drunk with it. Guys like Mookie don’t, and that’s what makes them so much more attractive to their teammates. I think the word is sincere. He plays a real sincere game.”

Read the whole thing.