Why would some people rather risk death than get vaccinated? It’s the American way

WASHINGTON — For a snapshot of the tragedy of belligerent self-destruction currently threatening to immolate parts of the United States of America, take a look at Florida.

A fundraising group supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis — after Donald Trump, he’s widely considered the second most likely candidate to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2024 — has been selling beer koozies and T-shirts bearing the slogan “Don’t Fauci my Florida.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, of course, is the senior U.S. federal government infectious disease expert who has been advocating for the use of COVID-19 vaccines. This month, Fauci has pointed out repeatedly that only one per cent of those who die from COVID-19 are fully vaccinated. The U.S. has enough vaccine available for everyone who wants it, Fauci said during a TV appearance July 6, and “it’s really sad and tragic that most all of these are avoidable and preventable.”

DeSantis hears that and says he doesn’t want any of that kind of thinking in his state.

Fewer than 50 per cent of Floridians have been fully vaccinated. Only 55 per cent have had even one dose. Not because there aren’t enough vaccines — they’ve been widely and easily available to anyone over age 12 in the U.S. for months now — but because the people DeSantis leads don’t want to be “Fauci’d.”

DeSantis’s idea of how to “Keep Florida Free,” as his slogan puts it, is to ban cities from implementing mask mandates, pass a law outlawing vaccine passports, and openly mock the nation’s top pandemic expert.

As a result, one of every five new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. last week were in Florida, and hospitals there are reportedly at the edge of capacity. Last week, Florida saw an average of 49.3 new cases per 100,000 residents, the highest level in the country and at the “tipping point” threshold for rampant spread, at which the Brown University School of Public Health advises stay-at-home orders and rigorous test-and-trace programs.

Welcome to the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” — a phrase used Friday by both the director of the Centers for Disease Control and President Joe Biden to describe the recent surge of the Delta variant that’s now savaging parts of the country. Nationally, COVID-19 cases were up 70 per cent and deaths were up 26 per cent last week over the week before, although those numbers are concentrated in places where vaccine rates are low.

In Missouri, fewer than 47 per cent of people have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; the state is now facing a crisis in its hospitals driven by 32 new cases per 100,000 people per day. In Pennsylvania, where 64 per cent of people are at least partially vaccinated, there are only 2.1 new cases daily per 100,000 people. In Louisiana, fewer than 40 per cent of people have had a shot, and it’s seeing almost 26 new cases per 100,000 people each day. In Vermont, where 75 per cent of folks have gotten a shot, new daily cases are just 2.2 per 100,000.

This correlation is not hard to see or to understand. Which is what makes the surge all the more frustrating.

It’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated in a country where vaccines are plentiful. Other countries — Australia, India, most African nations — don’t have enough doses to administer. In the U.S., their needles overfloweth, yet, in some places, they cannot give vaccinations away.

The problem, in part, is the stark politicization of the pandemic that saw many Trump supporters scorn masks; they now scorn vaccination and, like DeSantis, openly mock the medical experts who advocate them. Then there are younger people, feeling themselves not especially vulnerable to risk of hospitalization and death, who are not getting doses that would contribute to building herd immunity. And then there is the mistrust of government and medical authorities in some communities.

This stage of the pandemic is preying on the misinformed, the misled and the mistrustful. The U.S. is among the few countries in the world with the means to quickly extinguish the pandemic within its borders. It lacks only the will.

In retrospect, the trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S. has been fairly predictable, given the country’s culture. Early on, when suppressing the spread required a level of widespread self-sacrifice for the greater good (staying home, wearing masks), Americans struggled. In the first months after the vaccines emerged, when the challenge became an acquisition and distribution problem, the U.S. used its wealth, world-beating logistical sophistication and supply chain management to excel. But now that the key is getting most individuals to buy into the collective enterprise — for their own good, and the good of those around them — it is once again lagging countries such as Canada, whose surge ahead of the U.S. in vaccination rates despite its initial short supply has fuelled recent headlines here.

This is a country that will not forbid its citizens to openly carry assault rifles in the street — it’s not going to force them to get vaccinated. Moreover, it is a country where plenty of citizens insist on carrying those rifles in the streets, because they are certain they can do a better job protecting themselves than the government can. They are not going to suddenly decide that someone else knows how best to protect their health.

And so, despite the ready availability of vaccines that are astoundingly effective — Rep. Brian Higgins of New York recently characterized their development to me as the greatest medical achievement of the 21st century — COVID-19 is likely to continue its attack on the U.S., afflicting mostly those who remain unvaccinated by choice.

COVID-19’s spread began here, as it did everywhere, as a medical problem. It has become now a cultural problem, in which resistance to government threatens to fuel a wave of illness and death.