“Just think back to where this nation was a year ago,” an ebullient Joe Biden said on July 4, as he gave remarks billed as a celebration of U.S. independence—and independence from COVID-19. “Think back to where you were a year ago. And think about how far we’ve come.”
You might not have to work very hard to remember. Across the country, summer 2021 is starting to look distressingly like summer 2020. Not everything is the same: Today, roughly half of the population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, a step that (we are learning) does not necessarily prevent infection, but that does provide a good shield against serious illness, hospitalization, and death.
But the highly transmissible Delta variant is ravaging the United States. In many parts of the country, vaccination rates still lag far behind that 50 percent mark, and far behind the 70 percent target that Biden set for mid-summer. Hospitals in hard-hit areas of the country are filling up and sometimes overfilling with Delta patients. Health-care providers who have worked themselves to exhaustion for 16 months are being asked to find a little more energy. Businesses are putting office reopenings on hold. Elected and public-health officials are bringing back restrictions. The CDC said this week that Americans, even those who are vaccinated, should wear masks indoors in public spaces if they live in areas with substantial or high transmission of the virus.
It was a very different Biden who spoke yesterday—a somber and chastened one. “From the moment I was elected, I said I’d always give it to you straight from the shoulder, and we need some straight talk right now,” he said. “We need to wear masks to protect each other and to stop the rapid spread of this virus as we work to get more people vaccinated.”
How did it come to this—again?
Earlier this year, the U.S. seized the opportunity to move quickly on vaccinations. While the Trump administration did little to stifle the spread of the virus last year, it placed a big bet on shots. A combination of public- and private-sector work delivered, and the Biden administration was able to launch an effective campaign to push out vaccinations. Analysts toasted the U.S. for being ahead of the curve.
Then the curve caught up. Vaccination rates have slowed substantially, although in the past few days there’s been a new uptick, as fear of the Delta variant has set in. So much of what Biden celebrated on July 4 is in jeopardy now: our health, our economic recovery, our freedom.
No single factor explains the stall-out, but foremost among the culprits are partisan polarization and political opportunism. Many conservative media figures and Republican leaders have made resistance to vaccines and public-health guidance a point of pride and a political litmus test.
Tucker Carlson, likely the most prominent figure in conservative media today, has made his prime-time Fox News show into an almost nightly forum for raising doubts about the vaccines and COVID-fighting efforts more broadly. Elected Republicans such as Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have conducted an extensive misinformation campaign about vaccines and the disease. Others have recognized that there is political benefit in demagoguing against public-health officials—such as Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and a presumptive 2024 presidential hopeful, who is hawking Don’t Fauci My Florida gear, even as hospitalizations in his state approach last summer’s peak.
This political dynamic does not fully account for America’s struggles. Public-health officials such as those at the CDC and Anthony Fauci have been sometimes clumsy in their messaging about the pandemic, sapping public trust. Vaccination rates among many minority groups, who tend to vote Democratic, lag behind rates for white Americans. But the fog of pandemic, barriers to access, gaps in the health-care system, and long-standing vaccine hesitancy among minority populations (often for understandable reasons) were predictable and predicted. What was unforeseen was the way that vaccinations would become so politicized—though given the partisan battles last summer, perhaps this should have been expected too.
Although many Americans were hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccines early on, few of those who have still not gotten shots are in wait-and-see mode. Instead, they are actively resistant or refusing. In a recent Associated Press–NORC poll, 45 percent of the unvaccinated said they “definitely” would not get vaccinated, and another 35 percent said they probably would not. Nearly two-thirds believe, incorrectly, that the vaccines do not provide protection against Delta. And the hard core of resistance is formed by white Republicans, Axios has reported—while Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to be persuadable. Vox notes a strong correlation between low vaccination rates and voting for Donald Trump in November.
Not all conservative leaders are culpable. Some of them have been encouraging people to get vaccinated from the start, most notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But their pleas have been drowned out by louder, more cynical, and more ignorant voices. Now with Delta rampaging through heavily Republican areas, some conservatives have begun coming around and making more forceful arguments for vaccination. Meanwhile, a growing number of vaccine mandates imposed by private employers, and by the government on public employees, may help push the vaccination rate higher.
But it’s too late. A person who gets a shot today won’t be fully inoculated for weeks—which, as the difference between Biden’s July 4 and July 29 remarks shows, can be a huge gap in COVID-19 terms. Meanwhile, the push for mask wearing seems unlikely to be widely effective. Even Democratic governors such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Roy Cooper of North Carolina have said that they don’t intend to impose new mandates, instead nudging citizens to use their own judgment.
The United States will eventually come out of this wave of the coronavirus, but we don’t know what the costs—in lives, money, mental health, and more—will be. The bitter irony is that many conservative vaccine opponents and skeptics have framed their opposition in terms of the cost to Americans on freedom, yet the hesitancy they’ve fostered is already clawing back the freedom the country had just begun to enjoy.