America has Never Been So Ripe for an Anti-Vaccine Grift Movement

All of this is coming from a breakthrough case.

Hello and happy August to all my beautiful babies. In place of an intro paragraph, I have a confession to make: Last week when I wrote you, I had tested positive for COVID-19 for almost 24 hours. I did this as a fully vaccinated person since Cinco de Mayo (MARGARITAS) on the Moderna vaccine. My symptoms were extremely mild (I thought it was just allergies at first) and I’m currently back to 100%, drinking Mezcal and soda. I didn’t even miss a single minute of work. All in all, you get to tell your friends that you personally know a “breakthrough case.” It me.

In light of that, I spent the entire week locked up in a bedroom in our house and isolated from Elisabeth, who is seven months pregnant (!!!! and read to the end to see how she did with COVID). To put it simply, it wasn’t ideal, but we got through it. However, all that extra free time allowed me to freak out about breakthrough cases for half the week, dig into the data, and then calm myself down about breakthrough cases and COVID-19 in general toward the end of the week. Let’s dive in.

What happened to me also squares with what is currently happening around the country. The big, headline news this past week: Masks are back, even for vaccinated people. We can talk about that and why I wholeheartedly agree with that recommendation a little bit later. But in terms of the political repercussions, it was a pretty significant development. This piece from Axios summed it up for me really well:

We are now officially in a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Hospitals and ICUs are filled with unvaccinated Americans who are outright begging for the vaccine. This piece from the New York Times was especially hard to read:

But [Ms. Greene] had concerns about the vaccines, and found plenty of reasons to hesitate when she scrolled through social media or talked with anti-vaccine friends. “You need to watch this,” one wrote to her.

Clicking on a few links took her down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories touted by anti-vaccine lawyers and YouTubers, and videos in which anti-vaccine doctors and nurses decried the Covid-19 shots as “bioweapons.”

Covid crashed into the family’s world in late June when their two oldest sons brought the virus home from a church camp where nine boys got infected. The virus swept through the family. Then came the day that Mr. Greene, a hunter who hiked across mountains, had to be rushed to the hospital when his oxygen levels cratered.

There are a million more articles I could share that have similar stories. The most powerful and sobering thing I have read this week is this Twitter thread from an ICU nurse:

This tweet broke me:

She finishes her thread with the words: “It didn’t have to be like this,” which is more than true. On Saturday, Florida saw 21K new cases of COVID-19, and is quickly approaching hospitalization rates that New York saw during the height of the pandemic in 2020. States like Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, and Louisiana - where vaccination rates are still low - are seeing their ICUs become overwhelmed again with COVID patients. All of this makes me think back to headlines from last year (and even this year!):

I want to be clear here: The reason why the “liberal” approach to COVID-19 was more successful than the “conservative” approach is because the “conservative” approach got infected by Trumpism (i.e., infantilism) pretty early on. It is no surprise that the single most defining factor for someone who is vaccine hesitant is whether or not that person voted for Donald Trump. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that GOP states are seeing lower vaccination rates: It’s because their leaders made no real effort to combat vaccine hesitancy (and in some cases, helped it along) and also because a chunk of Republicans tune into Fox News, which is ground zero for anti-vaccine myths.

HOWEVER, although that is our current, sobering reality, that wasn’t always the case. Walk with me down memory lane, all the way to 2008:

"We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."

--Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Rally, April 21, 2008.

That’s right, the Patron Saint of Rationality,™ Barack Obama, flirted with anti-vaccine trutherism when he was campaigning against Hillary Clinton. At the time, then-Senator Obama was a graduate of Columbia and Harvard (BA and JD, respectively); he knew that vaccines didn’t cause autism, because he knew (like many others) that the entirety of the scientific/health community was in agreement that vaccines did not cause autism. So, why did he say it? Politics, more or less. But things have gotten worse since then.

People who are against vaccines like to think of themselves as free-thinkers, when in reality, they are more likely to be duped by clever Internet marketing than the average person. If I can get you to click one stupid link in this whole stupid Jackal, please click this one, but in summary, prominent influencers are being “paid” by private companies to promote vaccine hesitancy.

An influencer marketing agency called Fazze offered to pay him to promote what it said was leaked information that suggested the death rate among people who had the Pfizer vaccine was almost three times that of the AstraZeneca jab.

The information provided wasn't true. 

It quickly became apparent to Mirko that he was being asked to spread disinformation to undermine public confidence in vaccines in the middle of a pandemic.

Read the whole thing. Relatedly, the New York Times has a detailed profile of the most infamous grifter that you’ve never heard of, who has made a shit-ton of money during the time of COVID-19:

An internet-savvy entrepreneur who employs dozens, [Dr. Joseph Mercola] has published over 600 articles on Facebook that cast doubt on Covid-19 vaccines since the pandemic began, reaching a far larger audience than other vaccine skeptics, an analysis by The New York Times found. His claims have been widely echoed on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. […] Over the last decade, Dr. Mercola has built a vast operation to push natural health cures, disseminate anti-vaccination content and profit from all of it, said researchers who have studied his network. In 2017, he filed an affidavit claiming his net worth was “in excess of $100 million.”

Nice gig if you can get it. Clearly, there are people out there who are looking to take advantage of Americans who are:

  1. Skeptical of vaccines,

  2. Attracted to the idea that, “You can be in control of your own health.”

Americans - who are more likely to be obese than only a handful of other countries - have never been more vulnerable to this type of marketing than they are right now. 2020 was, all other things considered, an incredible year for people who were promising “natural” cures for every day problems, COVID included.

I’m going to keep hitting you with more links because it just gets nuttier the more you look at it:

The anti-vaccine industry has been waiting for this current moment for forty years, and they aren’t letting it go to waste. In a fantastic Atlantic piece, Brooke Harrington notes:

Sociology solves mysteries like these by zeroing in on problematic relationships, not the decisions that individuals make in isolation. Many of the people refusing safe, effective vaccination amid a deadly pandemic are enmeshed in a very distinctive type of relationship that sociologists have been studying for more than 70 years: the con job. Con artists gain social or financial advantage by convincing their marks to believe highly dubious claims—and to block out all information to the contrary.

One of the things that sticks out from the article on Dr. Mercola is (literally) the word supplements:

He also began promoting vitamin supplements as a way to ward off the coronavirus. In a warning letter on Feb. 18, the F.D.A. said Dr. Mercola had “misleadingly represented” what were “unapproved and misbranded products” on as established Covid-19 treatments.

When we were out to dinner with some friends this past week (prior to the knowledge of my COVID diagnosis/where I think I picked it up), I asked a pretty uncontroversial question, “Who actually likes COVID?” One of our friends said, “Well, Moderna and Pfizer, for one.”

“Good point,” I said (and thought, if I’m being honest). But if I had been a little sharper/had two more cocktails, I would have said, “The dietary supplement industry.” I know I already sound like a fun dinner guest, but hear me out: Dietary supplements made $35 billion in 2019, before the onset of COVID-19.

That’s a pretty big industry, and its earnings are overlooked. In 2020, the industry made an additional $11 billion, meaning that in one year, Supplements, Inc., made more money than eBay, and its total revenues are competitive with Merck’s (a “big pharma company that develops COVID-19 treatments), Oracle’s, and Coca-Cola’s. So many people who are anti-vaccine advise us to “follow the money,” when it comes to the pharmaceutical companies who produce the vaccines that (literally) save lives. Should we not do the same with the “natural” alternatives to “traditional medicine?” I wonder why they never point us in that direction.

To wrap it all up, this is a grift on top of a grift: Republican leadership has been anti-vaccine because it appeals to Trump voters and Trump voters are anti-vaccine because it appeals to their lack of trust in any “establishment” cure for our current malignant disease, 200 year-old medicine included. Politicians, throughout history, have played footsie with populist, anti-science answers to conventional wisdom. The problem we are facing right now is that this version of our historical “politics” is costing real lives. Speak (and I mean this) to an unvaccinated friend or family member today and relay your experience. You never know whose mind you might change. Moreover, you never know which friend was about to go down the rabbit hole, and whether or not you saved them.

So, are all of us vaccinated Americans spreading COVID-19 to the unvaccinated? To answer it quickly: No, but also possibly yes (I’m truly sorry). Logically, one would conclude that because the Biden Administration returned to “masking,” that would mean that they have admitted defeat and conceded that vaccinations do not keep regular folks from contracting COVID-19.

But in actuality, when you break down the numbers, it appears to be extremely unlikely that vaccinated people can spread and contract the disease. The Biden Administration and the CDC got notably frustrated with The Washington Post and the New York Times for running two sensationalist headlines, where they heavily implied that a CDC document supported the idea that vaccinated American were only slightly less protected than unvaccinated Americans. The Biden Administration immediately - and publicly - pushed back. And breakthrough infections are still capturing headlines:

But the actual data aren’t there just yet. Axios helpfully put it in an easy-to-read headline:

And then, if you want a chart:

Here is the long and short of it:

  1. Vaccinated people can spread the virus.

  2. The virus is spread mostly by symptomatic people.

  3. The vaccines keep you from being symptomatic and/or lessen the period during which you will be symptomatic.

  4. Vaccinated people are less much less likely to spread COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person.

This makes more sense if you just simply think about symptomatology. In the opening paragraph above, I said that during my bout with COVID-19, my symptoms were '“extremely mild” and that I had mistaken them for an “annoying cold” or “allergies” at first. In fact, my vaccinated immune system did not even carry a symptomatology that was strong enough to infect Elisabeth, who is also vaccinated and tested negative. That, in and of itself, should be a testament to the efficacy of the vaccines: Symptoms drive transmission and the vaccines reduce symptoms, therefore, vaccinated people are less likely to transmit COVID-19. Ya dig?

So, now we have to pivot to masking. In light of the above, do vaccinated people have a responsibility to protect unvaccinated people? From a public policy/good citizenship/Biblical perspective, I would unquestionably answer yes. I had the vaccine, I had COVID-19, and I am masking up in public to prevent unvaccinated people from contracting any potential COVID variant I might be carrying, even though I know it will do almost no harm to me. Since I am out of isolation, I went to the store today1 and immediately masked up, and every vaccinated person should do the same. Here is a simple way of looking at it:

  1. Is there a non-zero chance that a vaccinated person can spread COVID-19? (Yes.)

  2. Is there a non-zero chance that an unvaccinated person could contract COVID-19 from a vaccinated person (Yes).

  3. Does a mask reduce transmission? (Yes.)

Because the answer to all three of those questions is obvious (and in these thingies), it appears similarly obvious to me that vaccinated people should be masking in public to protect the unvaccinated.

I fully understand the sentiment, “The unvaccinated made their choice, and can ‘live’ with it.” It is true that we are in our current moment of COVID unsureness because of the unvaccinated. However, no one deserves to be hospitalized because they watched too much Tucker Carlson.

I think observing this makes some people uncomfortable, but let’s just be frank: You are reading a politics Substack with lots of fancy charts and data. Most people are reading a horror novel or their Facebook feed. You is smart, you is kind, you is important. This does make you better-equipped (intellectually) to deal with COVID-19 than the average person passing you in the aisle at Target. And the reality is that that person is your neighbor, and they benefit from your good behavior. Shouldn’t you, as the person with a gift of knowledge, do what you can to protect that person? To get even more condescending: You just looked at a chart from Yaniv Erlich on Twitter; of course you are smarter than the person who just passed you in the aisle at Target.

Yes, that makes me sound like an arrogant jerk, but if this logic saves one person’s life, who gives a shit? Go back to Ms. Greene, who is a real person and is sitting somewhere, thinking about her husband and the choices they made about the vaccine. If you could prevent that outcome by looking stupid in a mask, would you?

All of the relevant data is spilled out in obvious terms for you above. What will you do to help? Think about what you know, because you are just as much of an individual as the person who chooses not to take the vaccine. In humility, consider others better than yourselves, and put them first. We really are coming to the end of this (data show Delta could blow through us in 3-4 weeks), and the outcome will be better the more people we have to celebrate it with. You know more, you can process more, and you can do more. Do the most you can.

OMG BRO. I had so many should-reads to share but this one went longer than I imagined. Really important: Biden + Afghanistan withdrawal + interpreters we are trying to get out = DISASTER. One of the Administration’s biggest mistakes, to date.

The economy is growing, and inflation concerns keep falling off. Everything looks good, for now.

Alex Parker has a truly fascinating piece about how The Shadow inspired Batman. Send this to your Dad and he will love it.

OK, so it’s cocktail time. I’ll be honest: I am SUPER PROTECTIVE of this cocktail, because it is truly a diamond in the rough. It’s called the High Five and it’s made by Death and Co.

It’s almost too refreshing to be something that has hard booze in it, but the recipe goes:

1.5 oz Gin
.5 oz Aperol
1 oz Grapefruit Juice
.5 oz Lime juice
.5 oz Simple syrup

It is really a hidden gem of a summer cocktail lineup. It’s not a standard, classic cocktail, so think of me when you drink it.

I’m taking inspiration from Elisabeth, who plans everything in advance. Therefore, you will see Jackals on:

August 9th
August 23rd
September 13th
September 20th

After that, our baby girl is coming to join the rest of the world. I will 10000000% be out of commission in the weeks following her birth, but will try to have guests fill in and keep the content flowing. See you next week my babies.


Yeah, it was the liquor store; sue me.