In the United States, this pandemic could’ve been over by now, and certainly would’ve been by Labor Day. If the pace of vaccination through the summer had been anything like the pace in April and May, the country would be nearing herd immunity. With most adults immunized, new and more infectious coronavirus variants would have nowhere to spread. Life could return nearly to normal.
Experts list many reasons for the vaccine slump, but one big reason stands out: vaccine resistance among conservative, evangelical, and rural Americans. Pro-Trump America has decided that vaccine refusal is a statement of identity and a test of loyalty.
In April, people in counties that Joe Biden won in 2020 were two points more likely to be fully vaccinated than people in counties that Donald Trump won: 22.8 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties; 20.6 percent were fully vaccinated in Trump counties. By early July, the vaccination gap had widened to almost 12 points: 46.7 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties, 35 percent in Trump counties. When pollsters ask about vaccine intentions, they record a 30-point gap: 88 percent of Democrats, but only 54 percent of Republicans, want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. All told, Trump support predicts a state’s vaccine refusal better than average income or education level.
To overcome this resistance, some state and local political leaders have offered incentives: free beer, free food, tickets for a $1 million lottery. This strategy is not working, or not working well enough. Part of the trouble is that pro-Trump state legislatures are enacting ever more ambitious protections for people who refuse vaccines. They are forbidding business owners to ask for proof of vaccination from their customers. They are requiring cruise lines, sports stadiums, and bars to serve the unvaccinated. In Montana, they have even forbidden hospitals to require health-care workers to get vaccinated.
Pro-Trump vaccine resistance exacts a harsh cost from pro-Trump loyalists. We read pitiful story after pitiful story of deluded and deceived people getting sick when they did not have to get sick, infecting their loved ones, being intubated, and dying. And as these loyalists harm themselves and expose all of us to unnecessary and preventable risk, publications—including this one—have run articles sympathetically explaining the recalcitrance of the unvaccinated. These tales are 2021’s version of the Trump safaris of 2017, when journalists traveled through the Midwest to seek enlightenment in diners and gas stations.
Reading about the fates of people who refused the vaccine is sorrowful. But as summer camp and travel plans are disrupted—as local authorities reimpose mask mandates that could have been laid aside forever—many in the vaccinated majority must be thinking: Yes, I’m very sorry that so many of the unvaccinated are suffering the consequences of their bad decisions. I’m also very sorry that the responsible rest of us are suffering the consequences of their bad decisions.
As cases uptick again, as people who have done the right thing face the consequences of other people doing the wrong thing, the question occurs: Does Biden’s America have a breaking point? Biden’s America produces 70 percent of the country’s wealth—and then sees that wealth transferred to support Trump’s America. Which is fine; that’s what citizens of one nation do for one another. Something else they do for one another: take rational health-care precautions during a pandemic. That reciprocal part of the bargain is not being upheld.
Biden’s America is home to vaccine holdouts too. But state and local leaders in Biden’s America have spoken clearly and consistently about the urgency of vaccination. The leaders in Trump’s America have talked a double game: Like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, they urge vaccination one day, then the next they fundraise by attacking public-health officials such as Anthony Fauci. The consequence of DeSantis’s weeks of pandering to COVID-19 denial: More than one-fifth of all new COVID-19 cases in the United States are arising in the state of Florida—24,000 recorded on a single day, July 20.
Can governments lawfully require more public-health cooperation from their populations? They regularly do, for other causes. More than a dozen conservative states have legislated drug testing for people who seek cash welfare. It is bizarre that Florida and other states would put such an onus on the poorest people in society—while allowing other people to impose a much more intimate and immediate harm on everybody else. The federal government could use its regulatory and spending powers to encourage vaccination in the same way that Ron DeSantis has used his executive powers to discourage it. The Biden administration could require proof of vaccination to fly or to travel by interstate train or bus. It could mandate that federal contractors demonstrate that their workforces are vaccinated. It could condition federal student loans on proof of vaccination. Those measures might or might not be wise policy: Inducements are usually more effective at changing individual behavior than penalties are. But they would be feasible and legal—and they would spread the message about what people ought to do, in the same way that sanctions against drunk driving, cheating on taxes, and unjust discrimination in the workplace do.
Compassion should always be the first reaction to vaccine hesitation. Maybe some unvaccinated people have trouble getting time off work to deal with side effects, maybe they are disorganized, maybe they are just irrationally anxious. But there’s no getting around the truth that some considerable number of the unvaccinated are also behaving willfully and spitefully. Yes, they have been deceived and manipulated by garbage TV, toxic Facebook content, and craven or crazy politicians. But these are the same people who keep talking about “personal responsibility.” In the end, the unvaccinated person himself or herself has decided to inflict a preventable and unjustifiable harm upon family, friends, neighbors, community, country, and planet.
Will Blue America ever decide it’s had enough of being put medically at risk by people and places whose bills it pays? Check yourself: Have you?