On Thursday night, news surfaced of an internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) memo revealing just how contagious, and threatening, the delta variant is. The rapid, fearful spread of the delta variant, and its ability to infect the vaccinated at a higher rate, has quelled hope that the pandemic is truly, finally waning. As journalist Maura Judkis wrote for the Washington Post, "instead of flattening the curve, we've hit the delta swerve."
Specifically, the slide presentation first obtained by The Washington Post, estimated that among the 162 million vaccinated Americans there are 35,000 symptomatic infections each week. Vaccinated people are much less likely than unvaccinated people to be hospitalized or die from the mutant strain, according to the memo; but, if infected, they are able to spread it to vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
The news has led to swift public policy changes across the country, such as reinstating mask mandates, and even pushing back in-person office openings. The ominous shift in the pandemic precipitated by delta's spread raises the question: Will we ever be out of the woods? In other words, when — and how — does this pandemic end?
While the delta variant is alarming, both for its rapid spread and its ability to occasionally infect the vaccinated, it is not invincible against the existing COVID-19 vaccines. Those who are vaccinated are less likely to get hospitalized or die from the delta variant than those who are unvaccinated.
Still, that doesn't mean such things cannot happen. And it turns the delta variant may foreshadow the future of the novel coronavirus — a future in which the virus continues to mutate and spread throughout the human population, year after year, again and again.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, told Salon that he believes it has "always been the case" that "the pandemic ends with SARS-CoV-2 becoming an endemic seasonal respiratory virus like the other 4 coronaviruses that we deal with year in and year out."
"The delta variant doesn't change that trajectory but confirms it as the virus has become more efficiently transmissible, increasing its reach into the population," Adalja said. "There will not be a single point where the pandemic ends; it will just transition, and has partially transitioned in states in which cases have been decoupled from hospitalizations."
In previous interviews, Adalja has emphasized that the public health goal will never be to eradicate the coronavirus, but instead to not overwhelm hospitals with severe infections. The current available COVID-19 vaccines are still a means to do that. When asked if the number of symptomatic breakthrough COVID-19 infections estimated in the memo was alarming, Adalja said "no."
"Because they almost never land people in the hospital," Adalja said.
As Kathleen Neuzil, a vaccine expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told the Washington Post, there needs to be a shift in preventing infections to preventing severe disease.
"We really need to shift toward a goal of preventing serious disease and disability and medical consequences, and not worry about every virus detected in somebody's nose," Neuzil said. "It's hard to do, but I think we have to become comfortable with coronavirus not going away."
When asked where we go from here, Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California, Davis, said he sees COVID-19 becoming more like a "cold" and "flu" — for the vaccinated.
"Essentially we're going to have COVID be similar to colds or flu — it will be endemic, there will be continued risk and there will be a small percentage of people that have severe disease, but the vast majority of vaccinated people will have mild illness and it will be an outpatient illness," Blumberg said. "Those who are unvaccinated will still be at risk for severe disease, but what this suggests is that people who are vaccinated may have breakthrough infections, they may have replication of the virus at a high level in their upper respiratory tract, and therefore they may transmit to others also."
Blumberg said that this news doesn't mean we will never return to a sense of "normalcy," mirroring pre-pandemic days, but that it might take more population immunity to get there.
"I think we can eventually return to near normal," Blumberg said. "The challenge is that the virus is much more extraordinarily infectious." He explained that the novel coronavirus' "R-naught" number — a number that describes on average how many new people are infected from each case, considered a measure of a virus' infectivity — has increased precipitously throughout the pandemic.
"The number of infected people that result from every infected case has gone up from 2.4 at the beginning of the pandemic to around 8," he noted. "Now it's in the realm of some of the most infectious agents known to mankind."
Similar to the measles or chickenpox, a higher percentage of people immune to the virus is needed to stop transmission completely.
"So for measles, for example, we need 95% of the population immune to result in limited transmission of cases introduced to a community, so that's what we're looking for," Blumberg said. "Earlier in the pandemic we were looking at maybe 75% or 80% immunity to limit transmission, but the bars were set higher."
* * *
The new reality of the "forever" coronavirus pandemic means that the pharmaceutical industry will have to shift its strategy, too. Beyond merely distributing existing vaccines, there is a need now for boosters, new vaccines that immunize against variants, or both.
Pharma's strategy moving forward is still unclear. Could it be that booster shots that specifically target the delta variant could help us get to a 95% level of herd immunity sooner? A third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine can "strongly" boost protection against the Delta variant, according to Pfizer data. but that doesn't mean more people will get vaccinated.
But vaccines take time — months or years — and lots of testing before they can be deemed safe. In the meantime, life will continue apace for millions of Americans — as will gatherings, events and human interactions.
And what of those? As for how one should approach gatherings in the delta variant phase of the pandemic, Blumberg recommends doubling-down on masking and social distancing, especially in areas where delta transmission is high, and if they're unvaccinated or vaccinated with weakened immune systems.
"The vast majority of people who have breakthrough infections, who are vaccinated, are going to have mild infections; they're going to maybe have a fever, cough, runny nose and be sick for a couple days and then they're going to get better and that's not that big of a deal," Blumberg said. "If you're unvaccinated, then you're rolling the dice about whether you're going to end up in the hospital."
"For vaccinated people with weakened immune systems, who might have a suboptimal response to vaccination, it becomes even more important to take the extra layers of protection to avoid breakthrough infection," Blumberg added.
"Kraken" lawyer Sidney Powell blasted Fox News on Saturday during an interview on MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's media venture.
Powell lashed out at the network on "Lindell TV" after MyPillow yanked its ads from Fox News in a dispute over the network refusing to run ads pushing the debunked conspiracy theory that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. In reality, the contest was decisively won by Joe Biden.
Powell, who is facing legal sanctions for her efforts to overturn the election, raised the level of the rhetoric during her appearance on Lindell's podcast.
"Fox has become part of the propaganda arm of the Democrat Socialist Communist Party, just like all the other mainstream media outlets are," Powell argued.
There is not a Democrat Socialist Communist Party in America.
"Again, it's just pure fascism," she added, despite her role in trying to end democracy to keep a right-wing demagogue in power.
Sidney Powell says Fox is part of the propaganda arm of the Democrat socialist communist party and that it’s pure f… https://t.co/wHaWxOiYfh— PatriotTakes 🇺🇸 (@PatriotTakes 🇺🇸) 1627771500.0
"I want to use your work, D," a good friend who teaches high school English — I'll call her Vee — told me at a mixer, in front of a couple of artists we hang out with. "But it is triggering. It's so violent that I can't stand to read it." To be a Black artist in an era of trauma, to write honestly about a traumatized world, from inside Trauma Land. The conflicting expectations, needs, and complexities dance slowly inside my skull, up and down, grinding against the walls.
I took a beat before responding to Vee –– a long beat, where I looked at myself, the things I endured, the many clichés that many Black men of my generation have also endured, like shootings, police violence, poor schools, no health insurance, and a string of bad relationships that include ex-lovers who enjoyed hurling aerosol cans and TV remote controls at our heads on the nights we stayed out drinking too late. I think about how I mention these brutal stories in a lot of my work, while making a serious effort to weave them in and around a thoroughly researched historical context to provide a bigger picture of why our people were shooting, why our schools were poor and why those young ladies tested their arm strength against us. And I responded with something light, like, "I feel you. You know I don't want to ruffle feathers. I just want to tell my story."
But what I really wanted to say was this: "You are in Baltimore. Many of the kids in this city are living these stories. How does it help them if we act like the pain doesn't exist? Using art as a tool to process and explain trauma is the only therapy many of us will be able to access."
I'd tell her that the conversation about promoting joy over pain is cute on the Internet, but it's not a complete story. A lot of us are in constant pain. However, I can't respond like that. It's not in my nature. After all, I don't want to ruffle any feathers.
But then I had my own feathers ruffled during a friendly debate with a colleague I'll call the Doctor. The Doctor is a highly respected, award-winning, bestselling author. We were having a sandwich in D.C. and he was telling me how much he admired my work, both my writing skills and the connection I have with nontraditional readers, especially in the Baltimore region. However, like Vee, he said he often gets lost in the overwhelming amount of darkness in my work.
Overwhelming, I thought? Because he said it in a laughing manner, I decided to step out of character and push back a little. I pointed out that our backgrounds are significantly different.
"I didn't have scholarly parents like you. I'm from the bottom — my neighborhood was literally called Down Bottom," I said. "I didn't grow up on acres of land with a big house, full of countless books to thumb through when bored. As a matter of fact, I didn't have any concept of a quality structural education at all. As far as the men in my family go, I'm a first generation high school graduate. All we really had was the block, Doc, and we had to survive that. I guess part of that survival is sharing the stories."
The Doctor raised an eyebrow while pulling at the thin strands of hair on his chin, then challenged me back.
"You are such a funny guy, though," he said. "Why not highlight the good, the funny? I know it wasn't all bad. The 'hood can't be sooooo awful, I mean, come on!"
I explained to him that resiliency is currency where I'm from, so celebrating the triumphs and promoting that is good in a way. But in the end I simply agreed to disagree with him.
"You know that 'sooooo awful' is perspective, right?" I laughed. "Your awful isn't necessarily my awful."
"Go to hell, D. Watkins!" he laughed back.
Vee is one of my favorite educators and the Doctor is one of my favorite scholars — a very important contemporary voice on race, in my opinion — and I respect both of them enough to take their feelings on literature into consideration.
So I lounged in my office on a recent lazy Saturday and re-examined my body of work, created across different phases of my life. Not just my books — I looked at old essays, interviews, the embarrassing grad school stories I crafted before I found my voice, op-eds for major newspapers like the New York Times and The Guardian. So much freelance work.
The Doctor and Vee were both right, in a way. I'm a pretty dark guy. Or at least I have a history of publishing some dark nonfiction material: kill, kill, kill, and murder, more killing and more murder. A lot of my writing, especially my older work, feels extra dark right now, and rightfully so. I've been in the streets for most of my life. I wrote three books and most of my articles while living in one of the worse neighborhoods in America. I've since relocated to a different part of Baltimore and have already seen slight changes in my writing after the move. My life also includes marriage and fatherhood now. But all of this is a part of my story. So that leaves me with a question: Should I downplay my background and my formative experiences when I write to make other people feel comfortable? To further our current cultures new obsession with joy? What I even be able to appreciate that joy or explain its relevance if I didn't have those dark experiences to compare it to?
I thought about those question for days, even asking myself if I had the right to tell the stories of the people who struggled with me but never escaped our turbulent origins as I did. Some are dead, some incarcerated. My incarcerated friends love when I write about our street days; they print them out and tack them to the tattered walls of their cells. I assume that guys like the Doctor don't know about the connections many incarcerated people have and feel with my work, or he would have considered their feelings before making his case. Obviously I can't ask my friends who have passed how they fell about the way I write about us, but I have a collection of notes and personal letters from their surviving family members: Thank you so much, D, for keeping my brother alive. I write for them. Without them, there would be no me.
The elephant that must be acknowledged is that Baltimore is overflowing with pain. It's hard to write here and not engage with that pain unless you are completely disconnected from reality. I still do my community work; however, a lot of it is becoming more and more remote, and not all by choice. I get invited to speak in different states, and I travel to different countries. And when I'm home, I'm spending time with my wife and daughter, my mentees, my close-knit artist community and my family, not at large functions, or on the basketball courts Down Bottom, or by the projects where I was raised. My perspective has changed over the past few years, along with my value system. But I still feel the weight of the pain I survived and I believe that journey is important. So even as I moved away from it, I decided to keep telling my story, doubling down on exposing the ills of the system and how they affected me and others like me.
Keep in mind the audience I built was mostly high school students, college freshman, youth offenders, and incarcerated men and women who love Baltimore and the way I write the city. I used to pull up to the events wearing a hoodie or T-shirt and whatever type of Nikes, and always had a great time. I did receive invites to the more stuffy, literary types of events, and those talks went well, but I was lucky enough to have my people as my core audience. The events kept coming in, and my work kept building on itself, and my profile grew, without me making any significant changes in how I wrote. I found myself on bigger and bigger stages, presenting the same types of work. But it wasn't until I was asked to be a guest on a popular radio show that I started wondering how the people who run those bigger stages see me through my writing.
The producers loved my book and were happy to have me on for a prerecorded segment. Even though it wasn't live, they asked me to be at the station early, around 7 a.m. So I pulled up around 6:30, extra tired and even more hungry. When they let me in a studio, I was met with an enthusiastic, "Yo, D, what's up, bro! Let's get it!" from one of the hosts. I felt their energy and instantly woke up, ready to start the show. Then bottle girls came out.
Remember, this was 7 o'clock in the morning. I hadn't even had a cup of coffee yet. Two women with buckets of Grey Goose and Belvedere on ice sashayed into the room. One of the young ladies said, "We did our homework and we know all of your favorites!" Another producer joined the party: "Hell yeah, dawg! Turn up!"
I tried my best not to look confused. "I appreciate y'all so much and thank you for thinking of me," I said. "But it's too early for alcohol. I'm not on vacation, I'm trying to sell books. Do you have any coffee or tea?"
Everyone in the room was laughing except for me. Yes, I have written about the phase in my life when my friends and I loved top shelf vodka early in the morning. But I was in my early twenties then. Nowadays I'm perfectly fine with the mid-tier stuff, if I'm drinking at all. And I normally don't even drink with strangers. I don't like the way hard liquor makes me feel anymore. And — once more — it was early in the morning. What had I written or said that would make them think that was a reception I would welcome? Maybe they figured the amount of trauma I have written about has earned me extended drinking hours? Maybe my books depress them so much that they needed a drink.
I completed an awkward interview — no one took a drink — and left the studio thinking about Vee and the Doctor, imagining them telling me that was my fault, that my stories gave those people the license to approach me with shots for breakfast. But is it really my fault? I've written about liquor, but also about how much time I spend writing in coffee shops, and they didn't approach me with a fancy latte. I've written a lot about my love for food, especially West African cuisine, but I wasn't greeted with egusi stew and pounded yam fufu. So is the problem me and my writing, or what people choose to take away from it? I can't control that.
I have enjoyed books like Richard Price's "Clockers," "Random Family" by Adrian LeBlanc and "Ghettoside" by Jill Leovy — all white authors who wrote deeply about a Black experience. The problem is that white authors are celebrated when they project the horrors that exist inside of Black communities, but if I do it I am triggering someone, making the joy-mongers feel bad — I'm the Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning director of all trauma porn. On the success of their work, writers like Price, LeBlanc and Leovy get bigger book deals, major awards, TV and film deals. I get a bunch of lip from my peers for not dwelling in the fantasy world of limitless joy? I've lived the stories I write. I walk with the limp and have the scars and nightmares to prove it. Do I have to die to own the right to tell the stories of the times people tried to kill me?
Justifying why I write what I write has not been difficult for me. But I struggled again about how I am perceived as an artist after being approached by a white woman — I'll call her Beverly — who wanted to co-write a television show with me loosely based on my life in Baltimore. It should have been a red flag that she is not from a Black community and didn't seem to be deeply connected to one, outside of the Internet, and yet she wrote a lot about Black characters, experiences and issues. Blinded by her wit, industry knowledge, organization skills and my desire to break into the TV industry, I ignored my instinct to run as fast as I could in the other direction, and we started working on the project. After a few years of her telling me that I wasn't ready — I wasn't polished enough, I didn't have the skills to pitch to a major network — she told me that if I sent her some pictures of me worn down and shot up in the hospital, pictures that I don't even own, pictures that I know Larry David or Ted Danson wouldn't be required to submit as part of a pitch, then maybe we would have a shot at selling my story. This request came years after I met her, became a New York Times bestselling author, signed a deal to work on two HBO projects as a writer and consultant, and won multiple awards from my writing and teaching. I wasn't a total dud. But in her eyes, I was not enough. I had to be sensationalized, even in my own story.
Maybe this was my fault. Maybe me allowing her to have full access to my ideas, my stories, my triumphs and my downfalls gave her a license to see me as a commodity. Maybe when you put yourself out there as an artist you give everyone who consumes your art the same license. And people can do what they want with that license: reward it, celebrate it, trash it, and yes, call it trauma porn. The only thing that balances me after analyzing the cocktail of all these events is realizing that there is no balance. To be a Black artist in an era of trauma, in a world of trauma, I have to make the art that I want to make. I have to ignore what's going to be appropriate to social media audiences this week, because it probably won't be appropriate for social media next week either. I have to ignore the constantly evolving rhetoric that's sometimes so woke it's woking itself in circles, allowing nothing to be done.
I don't want to be a part of a movement of fake, forced positivity. But I also don't want to write for people who only want to consume and glorify a poor, downtrodden Black experience. The only solution for me, and the advice I would give to other artists who struggle with this, is this: Tell your truth. Accept your truth, and do not let other people twist, bend or mold it into the version of your truth they want to see.
The ability to call someones life "Trauma Porn" or lust after someone's pain to enhance you art career is a luxury that many of us never had. My colleagues who feel my work is too dark don't truly get me and my struggles or my work, as i I do not fully understand them. And that is OK. Let's normalize agreeing to disagree. There's a whole spectrum of human experience between joy and trauma, too. And we need to be free to tell all of our stories.
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