Fear is the deepest and strongest emotion in the human brain; it overrides reason, and it causes us to exaggerate and over-personalize risk and danger. Fear seems to permeate today's public response to the COVID-19 delta variant, a highly contagious pathogen that needs to be taken very seriously but should not be used by politicians and the media to manipulate us. Unfortunately, media-stoked COVID-19 hysteria is on the rise again.
The fact is that if you are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and mount an immune response, you have very little to be afraid of. Boosters will be useful, especially in high-risk groups, but are not necessary for most people yet. If you have recovered from COVID-19, studies show that you likely have developed a strong natural immunity lasting at least several months, though recent studies also show that you can augment this powerful durable immunity significantly with at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, especially helpful to protect against the variants.
Consider the way some in the news media distort the truth to shock us. A headline blares that over 70 percent of those who got COVID-19 during an outbreak in Provincetown, Mass., were fully vaccinated, implying that the vaccine may not work. But scratch below the surface and you discover that over 95 percent of people in Provincetown were fully vaccinated at the time so, of course, most people who got sick would have had the shot. Also, the crowd in Provincetown that weekend was so large (over 60,000) that the real story was how few people got sick (less than 500, per the original CDC report, and only seven were hospitalized) and how well the vaccine works.
Politicians talk about the rising case numbers and those are probably several times what are being reported. And yes, the number of hospitalizations is rising to over 50,000, which is concerning. But keep in mind that many cases are mild, especially among the vaccinated; most of our most vulnerable, the elderly and the chronically ill are fully vaccinated and protected. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskySunday shows - Democrats' spending plan in the spotlight CDC director: 'We can't be complacent' amid drop in COVID-19 cases Sunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters MORE told me in an interview on SiriusXM recently that asymptomatic cases are not being routinely tracked.
Masks are once again being overly politicized. They are definitely valuable, especially when there is virus around, but only N95 masks and some KN95 masks will likely present a formidable barrier against a respiratory virus, especially one as easily transmissible as this variant. Don’t get me wrong, even a surgical or cloth mask if worn properly is surely of some value, but it is hardly in the same category as an N95 or, certainly, the vaccine. There is a growing body of evidence that even vaccinated people can spread the virus so it makes sense to use these masks in close quarters, even if vaccinated. But it is a false slogan to say "Wear one and you are protected, don’t wear one and you are the virus’s next victim.
Children do concern me because they are now 20 percent of the total case rate and over 10 percent have been found to develop symptoms of long COVID-19, which are neurological, physical and psychological post-COVID symptoms. If they are too young to qualify for the vaccine, then everyone around them should be vaccinated. I believe KN95 masks, or something equivalent, should be tried in children at school.
And then there’s chickenpox. Comparisons have been made between the contagiousness of the delta variant and chickenpox based on a CDC document that shows viral shedding for 18 days and a high amount of virus carried by infected people early in the course of illness. But the R0 (the reproduction number, showing how contagious a disease is) for the delta variant is around 6 to 8, meaning that six people can be expected to catch it for everyone who has it — twice as contagious as the original virus. That’s very high, but not nearly as high as chickenpox. For varicella-zoster (chickenpox) the R0 is 10 to 12.
And chickenpox is really in another category. Up to 90 percent of the non-immune will catch chickenpox if they are exposed to it, and it can also hang in the air for hours, spread easily on surfaces and to everyone in the room. People are considered contagious until no lesions have appeared for at least 24 hours, and it can take up to two weeks after exposure for someone to get sick, many days longer than for COVID-19.
COVID-19 is a very worrisome and troublesome disease. But when it comes to transmissibility, it is no chickenpox, and saying so only spreads more unnecessary fear and "delta panic."
Hyperbole doesn’t help. It fans the emotional and political flames that divide us.
Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, "COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science."