There will be one economy for the vaccinated and another for everyone else

dining out restaurant
The Delta surge is sparking fears that America is losing the taste of normalcy it's had over the summer.
  • The Delta surge has sparked fears of repeating 2020, but it's unlikely we'll experience last year's economy.
  • Not enough people are vaxxed to stop Delta, but enough are to help keep the economy running.
  • The economy has also learned how to adapt to the pandemic, but you'll need a shot to participate.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The Delta variant has thrown a giant curveball at America's hot vax summer.

Hospitals in less-vaccinated regions are becoming overcrowded. Mask recommendations are back. Many companies have pushed back their return-to-office start dates. And it's all happening ahead of the upcoming school year.

It's all revived Covid anxiety in full force for many Americans, who are fearing another lockdown and quarantine, and rapidly losing confidence in the economy's ability to handle it. But while Delta is a very real threat right now, it's unlikely we'll experience the same economy that we did a year ago.

Scary media headlines lacking crucial context are behind much of the understandable angst, but the emerging science shows the vaccines largely protect against hospitalization. Not enough Americans are vaccinated to prevent Delta's spread, but enough people are vaccinated to keep the economy open and maintain a sense of normalcy.

That's because the economy has also mutated alongside the virus, learning how to adapt to a pandemic world. Once Americans understood how the virus spreads, many professions improvised methods to limit physical contact and keep the economy running while preventing another lockdown.

Given the recent surge in the Delta variant, cities are imposing their own rules, and if you're not vaccinated, you'll have limited participation. For example, New York City and San Francisco will require proof of a vaccine for indoor activities like dining and using the gym. More and more employers are requiring it of their workers as well and, as Insider's Juliana Kaplan reported, it's even increasingly required in job postings.

The health risks for the vaccinated aren't near what they were in 2020, meaning they can still live their lives with a degree of normalcy. What's emerged is a two-track economy marked by a patchwork of highly vaccinated areas and poorly vaccinated regions. This lack of cohesiveness isn't ideal, but improved from the unvaccinated economy that shut down last year.

We may still be living in a pandemic, but it's looking like the economy won't repeat 2020.

Vaccines allow us to live our lives during the pandemic

In 2020, Covid was a pandemic for everyone. Now, it's become "a pandemic of the unvaccinated," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a press briefing last month.

The unvaccinated are most at risk of disease from Covid and are largely driving the Delta surge. While the highly contagious variant has increased the odds of "breakthrough" infections among the vaccinated, these cases affect only 0.01% to 0.29% of fully vaccinated people in all states reporting data to the CDC through July.

A full vaccination with an mRNA vaccine is about 88% effective at preventing symptomatic disease caused by Delta, according to an August study published by the New England Journal of Medicine. That means the vaccinated also remain well protected from serious disease leading to hospitalization and death, likely to have mild or no symptoms.

covid vaccine
Even with the Delta surge, vaccines make a big difference in how our economy can operate.

But whereas the vaccinated were unlikely to transmit the Alpha variant to others, Delta is a different story: It's transmissible among the vaccinated, making it more contagious, per the CDC. However, a recent study found that even though Delta viral loads are about the same for both the unvaccinated and vaccinated, they fall more quickly for the latter. And because the chances of a breakthrough infection are relatively rare, vaccinated people are overall less likely to transmit the virus to others.

However, the problem is that only half of Americans are fully vaccinated (vaccines haven't yet been approved for kids), and they thus need to bear the burden of protecting the unvaccinated half.

While a portion of the vaccinated very worried about Delta may personally quarantine again, it's likely most of America will keep keeping on: the vaccinated who are trying to maintain the summer's taste of normalcy, albeit with more caution, and those among the unvaccinated who are opposed to restrictions and always acted like everything was normal in the first place will continue to stimulate the economy.

Even with the Delta surge, we won't go into full lockdown again

The hybrid economy of the vaxxed and unvaxxed also means it's unlikely America will go under lockdown again. President Joe Biden said back in June that he didn't foresee a lockdown under Delta since so many Americans are vaccinated.

"The existing vaccines are very effective so no, it's not a lockdown, but some areas will be very hurt," he said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci echoed a similar sentiment earlier this month, saying that enough people are vaccinated that a lockdown isn't necessary, although the US would still see a rise in cases because just as many people aren't vaccinated. "I think we have enough of the percentage of people in the country - not enough to crush the outbreak - but I believe enough to not allow us to get into the situation we were in last winter," he said.

It helps, too, that the economy is also better prepared for the latest wave of infections than it was a year ago. It's become so adaptable that experts widely expect the economic fallout from the Delta variant to be a fraction of early 2020's historic recession, Insider's Ben Winck reported.

The way the economy is "mutating" has left it less vulnerable and more productive, David Kelly, JPMorgan Funds' chief global strategist, said in a note on Monday. He cited four key shifts that have boosted productivity and would protect the US from another pandemic related recession: the QR menu at restaurants, the continued rise of e-commerce, the video-conferencing boom, and the shift from to cash to cards.

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The economy and its people have adapted to pandemic life.

The economic forecast from the beginning of the third quarter also looks promising. Bloomberg Economics predicts GDP will expand by 1.8% in the third quarter from the past three months. It also anticipates inflation peaking before falling to a more moderate pace during the same time frame.

Then there's the fact that the US added nearly 1 million jobs in July. And US jobless claims slid to 375,000 last week, suggesting little Delta impact. Spending is also going strong - Target and Walmart are headed toward a strong back-to-school season, and malls have made a comeback.

Now, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that life is uncertain. Things could change for better or for worse overnight. There are still signs of a threatened economy: BofA predicts a pullback in spending, and already noted a decline in spending on airfare over the past week. Some events, like the New York International Auto Show, have been cancelled. And other countries that have already been experiencing a Delta surge, like Israel, have implemented additional rounds of restrictions.

But Richard Curtin, chief economist for the University of Michigan's Surveys of Consumers, said Friday that Delta may not harm the economy as much as people think. Should economic recovery continue and vaccination rates improve, he said, it's possible Americans could "shift toward outright optimism."

We've learned how to be flexible, and so has the US economy. It's enough to keep us from repeating 2020 all over again as we wait for more people to get vaccinated.

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