Friday, September 03, 2021

Covid and Anti-vaxxers

A friend of mine who is a doctor lamented the fact that the Covid vaccine, which was developed in under one year and that works with astonishing 95% efficacy and thus should be viewed as one of the crowning achievements of scientific medicine, has become mired in political controversy. He wondered if it had to be this way. Could different leadership have led more people to accept the vaccine? 

Ezra Klein, in one of his recent podcasts, also asks what would have happened in the counterfactual world where Mitt Romney was approaching the end of his second term as president (having defeated Obama in 2012) when Covid-19 broke out: if he had promoted masks and vaccines, would opposition to the vaccine and to masks have still appeared?

 Tara Haelle, a science journalist who covers the anti-vaccine movement, has an opinion piece in the NY Times that I think clearly shows that Romney would not have been able to prevent the anti-vaxxers.

She shows that anti-vaxxers have been organizing since the early 2010s, and that they had adopted the strategy of arguing for their misinformed opinion with the argument of “freedom” since at least 2015. In that year, California pass a bill to eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements, in response to the growing number of children not vaccinated and the resulting outbreaks of measles. Republican Texas state representative Jason Villalba proposed a similar bill, but his proposal led to an uproar and the bill was never taken up for a vote. Just for proposing such a bill, Villalba was primaried from the right and lost the primary. Even though his primary challenger went on to lose the general election, it became clear to Republicans that supporting vaccines was politically dangerous. After reading Haelle’s article, I suspect that Romney lost in part because he was not able to motivate the anti-science anti-vaxxers. (As an aside, people seem to forget that the election was actually fairly close; Romney is now widely viewed as a “loser” and people have all sorts of reasons for why he lost. Someone just told me yesterday that he lost because he did not campaign hard enough. Oof!)

 Still, looking at other countries’ reactions to Covid, one can’t help but feel that with different leadership, the current disaster in the US did not have to be like this. Further evidence that leadership is important comes from how Republicans have flipped on vaccine mandates in Missouri in just a few years. In mid-August, our local newspaper reported that Missouri’s legislature in 2014 unanimously passed a bill requiring all college students who live on campus to be vaccinated for meningitis. Meningitis is not that common; its incidence peaked at 1.5 per 100,000 in 1981, and in part thanks to vaccines, has declined to 0.11 per 100,000 in 2017. But it is a serious illness; the CDC says “About 10 to 15 in 100 people infected with meningococcal disease will die. Up to 1 in 5 survivors will have long-term disabilities,” including brain damage.

 It's astonishing that in just 6 or 7 years, Republicans in Missouri have gone from pro-vaccine to anti-vaccine, from agreeing to a vaccine requirement to arguing that vaccines mandates are an attack on civil liberties. 

Missouri’s current Republican governor, Mike Parson, in 2014 was a state senator, and he voted for the meningitis vaccine requirement. Now is against requiring a Covid vaccine, saying “The Government doesn't have a place to play in mandates of the vaccine.” (The ACLU has argued, correctly in my opinion, that vaccine mandates or requirements are not a violation of civil rights but actually protect everyone's civil rights. You can see a clear Opinion piece on this here.)

 Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s current Republican Attorney General, was then a state senator and voted for the vaccine mandate. Now he’s against masks and vaccine mandates, calling them part of the “dystopian biomedical securitystate.”  (See video here.) It is not irrelevant that Schmitt is campaigning for the Republican nomination to run for the open senate seat next year.

 Most surprising, some Missouri Republicans even want to passa law making it illegal for businesses to require their employees to getvaccinated for Covid-19.  Usually Republicans are against regulating businesses; now, over the issue of Covid, they are reversing their usual stance. This is especially surprising in Missouri, which is an “at will” employee state, meaning that unless an employee has a contract, they can be fired for any reason (the only exceptions are termination based on “race, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, or disability.”) 

It is astonishing that we are in such a polarized country that even viral infections and deaths do not change the minds of people who insist on individual “freedom.” Alabama and Mississippi have run out of ICU beds, repeating the tragedy we saw early in the pandemic in Italy and New York City. But this time it was entirely preventable. Yet people persist in their arguments that vaccine mandates are oppression.

As one doctor on the radio commented, the truly sad aspect of this current phase of the pandemic is not only how unnecessary all this suffering is, but also how we in the general public have become used to these high numbers of deaths. 

AHARON SARELI: ... one of the challenges of this last delta wave compared to the last summer, when we were hit by a massive surge as well, is that last summer everyone seemed to be in the battle against COVID together. It's almost like the world was holding its breath.

And I think one of the challenges with this surge is that if you're in the hospital, if you're a physician, if you're a health care giver or if you're a patient that is seriously ill or dying from COVID, you're in it and you're faced by what we've been talking about. But for the rest of the community, if you step outside of even Florida hospitals, life goes on. People are driving around. People are in the streets. People are going on about their lives. And I think that we've almost become numb as a community to what COVID is doing to those patients that chose not to become vaccinated and are now paying the price. 

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