Commentary

BDN Editorial Board confuses terms regarding Delta variant

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In its July 5 piece, the editorial board of the Bangor Daily News opines that while Governor Mills’ 15-months-plus-long State of Civil Emergency is finally over, the COVID-19 pandemic is not.

The crux of their argument lies with the oft-referenced Delta variant, coined “the Indian variant” before the CDC reassigned Greek letters to its “variants of concern.”

The editors describe Delta as “50 percent more virulent than other strains,” linking to an Associated Press (AP) report from the United Kingdom (UK) published July 1. But for those readers who choose to dig just a little deeper, the claim turns out to be misrepresented at best.

Nowhere does the AP article use the term “virulent,” which is defined as “promoting the rapid onset of severe illness.” In fact, the 50% figure cited by the BDN editorial board comes from this sentence: “Scientists believe the delta variant is about 50% more transmissible [emphasis added] than other types.”

Following this assertion, AP notes that “British experts have said there are some preliminary signs it may increase hospitalization, but there’s no evidence it is more lethal.”

Unfortunately, the BDN Editorial Board, despite linking to this same report, made the careless mistake of conflating these two very different epidemiological terms. Virulence, a pathogen’s ability to cause severe illness in its victims, is a distinctly different phenomenon than its transmissibility, the chance that it will spread to another person, also described as its infectiousness.

These terms are simply not interchangeable. To confuse one for the other is not only scientifically wrong, it is a disservice to the public who rely on journalists to verify facts and report the truth. Unfortunately, because of this oversight, most BDN readers will likely take the Editorial Board’s words at face value, carrying on with their days, grossly misinformed about the reality of the quickly-fading coronavirus pandemic.

In a bit of a buried lede, the Editorial Board notes that health experts say that the available COVID-19 vaccines “appear to be effective against the delta variant,” which is supported by reports from around the world. Even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government has maintained relatively consistent pandemic restrictions over the last year, said that vaccinations have “broken the link” between infections and serious illness, and will allow the country to begin to fully re-open its economy.

If the Delta variant is more transmissible, yet its virulence is still mitigated by the multiple COVID-19 vaccines available, why would the BDN editors engage in such a reckless distortion of terms? Surely the only byproduct of this mistake will be more fear among BDN readers.

While probably just an honest error, it has likely already reached many thousands of readers. To slow the damage to the public’s factual understanding of the pandemic, the BDN Editorial Board must do all that it can to correct this error as soon as possible.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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