With the Omicron variant of Covid-19 on a rapid rise, the danger of unvaccinated people comes again into sharp focus. And yet, for many, even the recent threshold of 800,000 deaths in the United States is not persuasive. So-called anti-vaxxers come at the question from the gut, not with rationality. Their fears are amplified by elected figures who howl about mask mandates, freedom, and vaccination requirements in a ghoulish, at-any-cost spin to win more votes.
We had a look up-close this week, when a member of the East Hampton community made an appointment to come by The Star to present us with a stack of papers and a book by the notorious scourge Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (In a classic act of do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do temerity, guests invited to Mr. Kennedy’s holiday party last week were urged to be vaccinated or tested for Covid-19; classy to the end, he blamed his wife.) Core to our visitor’s belief was that the Covid-19 vaccines had not been adequately tested; however, she also rejected the clearly adequate testing of old-line vaccines, going back to initial inoculations against smallpox practiced since the 1700s.
Science denialists have been around for a long time. They cherry-pick the information that conforms to their views, rather than accept the main currents of research, preferring instead the muddy backwaters. They miscast disagreements among scientists as their proof but then irrationally cite generally unqualified “experts” as worth listening to. They overstate potential harm while underplaying vaccines’ effectiveness. They see conspiracies among government and the medical industry, claiming that some low-cost alternative is being suppressed deliberately. Finally, they appeal to personal freedom — this is the ultimate call in the skeptic’s playbook, the equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in their ears and yelling, “Nah, nah, nah!”
In a 1905 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the safety of an entire community came before individual belief. The justices had been asked to review a challenge to a Massachusetts law that made the smallpox vaccine compulsory. Sadly, with the court’s present-day rightward tilt, the gut may yet triumph; in 2018, the majority took the side of a cake shop owner who refused service to a same-sex couple’s wedding. Since then, the court has moved even more in that direction, for example, allowing to stand a law empowering Texas citizens personally opposed to abortion to file lawsuits against anyone involved, from doctors to Uber drivers.
Several things are clear from the data: There is no increase in deaths among Covid-19 vaccine recipients. So-called breakthrough deaths represent a tiny fraction of all Covid deaths — less than one-half of 1 percent in some states. Even the hotbed of misinformation Fox News recently reported that the “vast majority of Americans who are getting serious cases of Covid-19 or dying are unvaccinated.”
The burden has brought the health care system repeatedly to a breaking point; this week the Federal Emergency Management Agency began sending paramedics to Arizona to help cope with that state’s virus spike. Nationwide, there are the signs of a nursing shortage, which could result in rationing care — a danger to us all.
None of this will change the minds of the committed anti-vaxxers, but for those still on the fence about it, the time to get the shot is now.