How to Undermine Public Health


Photo by Mark König | Unsplash

Photo by Mark König | Unsplash

The progress of public health programs in the 20th century is really nothing short of miraculous. In 1900, roughly 800 out of every 100,000 Americans died of an infectious disease; a century later, that figure was below 100. In 1900, nearly a third of all annual American deaths were children under the age of five; a century later, that was just over one percent. It was as though we’d slain one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

This dramatic progress arrived thanks to a number of important innovations: the addition of chlorine in drinking water, the development of antibiotics, the widespread use of immunizations, and more. And all of that stemmed from 19th-century discoveries about microorganisms and how they can spread disease. But today, this progress threatens to be stopped and even rolled back. It’s being rolled back by a coordinated and aggressive attempt to make refusing a vaccine to a deadly disease a partisan rallying cry.

As I noted in this Denver Post article, there is an intensely strong correlation between the percentage of a state that voted for Joe Biden and the percentage of its population that is now vaccinated against COVID-19. Indeed, vaccination rates are now one of the most reliable predictors for how a state voted last year. This extends within the states, as well; in nearly all states, there is a very strong correlation between how the county voted last year and the percentage of its eligible population that is now vaccinated. Surveys of individuals find similar patterns, with nearly 80 percent of eligible Democrats having received a shot but only about half of eligible Republicans saying the same.

Now, to some extent, this may be a result of how the vaccine is being administered in different states and counties, and the ease with which some populations may come by the vaccine compared to others. A city-dweller might simply encounter far more vaccine options during a daily commute than a rural citizen might. But to a large extent, this is about personal choices. If health officials are having trouble putting vaccines into Republican arms, it’s because those Republicans are refusing to roll up their sleeves.     

And we’re getting an increasingly clear picture of why that’s been happening. For much of this year, Republican leaders and conservative media figures have been actively raising unfounded doubts and fears about the vaccines. Prominent Fox News personalities, including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, have been warning about and exaggerating the dangers of the vaccine, while raising fears about the Biden administration’s plans to have volunteers go door to door in low-vaccination neighborhoods encouraging people to get vaccinated. Fox News’ Jean Pirro has claimed that the Biden administration is secretly using this program to confiscate people’s guns. Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk said that students declining a vaccine would exist in a “medical apartheid.”

Republican elected officials have echoed this chorus. Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina suggested that the Biden plan was actually to confiscate bibles. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) have compared vaccination efforts to the policies of Nazi Germany, while Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas likened them to Stalin-era Russia.  Republican politicians in several states, including Montana, have pushed for new laws to protect those who refuse Covid vaccines from “discrimination” in employment and in their access to public services. Even in the recent meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, attendees cheered at news that the country would fall behind its vaccination goal.

Notably, this Republican opposition to the vaccine, while initially fostered by former President Trump, has largely gone on without his participation. He has been relatively silent on the topic and has even occasionally encouraged people to get their vaccinations. (Although he did recently try to both take credit for the vaccines while validating refusal of them.)

To be fair, many of the most prominent conservative vaccine critics, including Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have shifted their views sharply just within the past week, encouraging people to get vaccines. This is important and vital messaging and should continue. But a great deal of damage has already been done in terms of hardening people’s views on the vaccines and allowing the virus to spread unchecked this summer.

Of course, refusal of new vaccines is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States or elsewhere. There were substantial anti-vaccine movements that arose in the late 19th century and early 20th century United States in response to smallpox vaccination efforts, and there has been a consistent (if small and relatively bipartisan) modern anti-vaccine movement in the U.S. for decades, seeking exemptions from mandatory childhood immunizations.

What is distinct today is the overwhelmingly partisan nature of vaccine refusal. At least so far, it is largely limited to the Covid vaccine specifically. However, a recent study finds that anti-Covid vaccine sentiments are spilling over into other areas, creating resistance to getting an influenza vaccine. Flu rates were historically low in the winter of 2020-21 thanks to widespread social distancing. However, the resumption of relatively normal social and economic activity this year, combined with partisan objections to getting a flu vaccine, could make for an especially deadly flu season next winter.

Even more disturbingly, we’re seeing this spill over into other vaccines, as well. Tennessee’s Department of Health recently fired its top vaccine official for instructing medical professionals about a decades-old state policy of immunizing minors 14 and older for a variety of preventable illnesses without parental approval. In response to pressure from Republican officeholders, the state office decided to conduct “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines” and “no outreach whatsoever regarding the HPV vaccine,” although that decision was reversed just at the end of last week.

We are not yet at the point where Republican leaders are pressuring voters and public health officials to withdraw from all public health efforts, and hopefully, that moment will not arrive. But the baseless logic and fact-free claims they’ve applied to the coronavirus vaccine, for no obvious purpose than to find something to criticize Democrats for, is how public health is undermined. It has needlessly made a partisan issue out of something that used to have broad bipartisan consensus and adherence. This campaign is already causing more deaths than would have otherwise happened, and its impact is likely to be felt for years or decades to come.

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