Pandemic of the unvaccinated
More than 18 months have passed since COVID-19 first reached American soil, and for me, it’s hard to imagine life before the pandemic. COVID forced me to spend my senior year of college in front of a computer screen rather than in a classroom, and prevented me from visiting my 94-year-old grandfather for more than a year. But these personal inconveniences are nothing compared to the heartache and suffering experienced by many.
As of September 20, 2021, COVID had claimed the lives of over 670,000 people in the United States, making it the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. In Michigan alone, 22,244 people have died, including 54 in Houghton and Keweenaw counties, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When routinely confronted with such massive numbers, it’s easy to forget their true meaning. However, it is crucial that we remember that every single one of these 670,000 people was an individual who had friends, family, community, passions and aspirations. Each one of these people died too soon, and each of their deaths leaves a void that will not soon heal.
Fortunately, we can prevent further death and suffering. We have three vaccines that significantly reduce the risk of contracting the virus, and provide almost complete protection against serious illness and death. But while America’s initial vaccine roll-out started strong, our vaccination rate has since slowed.
Today, about 65% of Americans have received one vaccine dose, and 56% of the population is fully vaccinated. Michigan lags behind the national trend, with 56% of people having one dose, and 52% fully vaccinated. Houghton and Keweenaw Counties are even further behind – 45% of Houghton and 50% of Keweenaw populations are fully vaccinated. The US has not reached herd immunity, and millions remain unprotected against the virus.
These low vaccination rates are not for lack of vaccine supply. Instead, a sizable, minority of Americans are hesitant to get vaccinated. As case numbers remain high and the Delta Variant – a vastly more transmissible COVID strain – surges across the US, this hesitancy can mean death.
CDC data published in June indicates that 99.5% of the people dying of COVID are unvaccinated. A September CDC study found that unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to be killed by COVID than vaccinated people are.
As with many issues, American political polarization has invaded the realm of public health. While the majority of government officials and media outlets have encouraged vaccination and other common-sense health protocols like wearing masks, a number of right-wing politicians and pundits have done the opposite.
From the beginning of the pandemic, figures like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Fox News Commentator Tucker Carlson, and former President Donald Trump have downplayed the seriousness of COVID, discouraged masks and social distancing, propagated an array of conspiracy theories and disinformation, and even discouraged vaccination.
The actions of these conservative leaders have taken a staggering toll on their supporters. Survey data from the Pew Research Center indicates that 86% of Democrats are at least partially vaccinated, compared to only 60% of Republicans. The divide is so stark that almost every consistently blue state has a higher vaccination rate than almost every reliably red state. This pattern is even more pronounced at the county level.
The New York Times reports that in counties where Donald Trump received over 70% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election, 47 out of every 100,000 people have died from COVID since July. In counties where Trump won less than 32% of the vote, about 10 out of every 100,000 have died. Meaning that counties that strongly supported Trump, have a COVID death rate that is almost five times higher than counties that did not.
Red southern states like Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and consequently experienced some of the highest case numbers and death rates over the past two months.
It is clear that Republican voters have followed the lead of politicians and media (rather than the other way around) because polling from early in the pandemic shows little to no difference in the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans towards COVID. Polarization is killing people.
Even today, many of these right-wing leaders continue to circulate disinformation about vaccination. The decision of whether to get vaccinated, a matter of health and science, has increasingly become a political question. But there is nothing conservative about ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence, or encouraging reckless and life-threatening behavior. It is very strange, that politicians who label themselves pro-life, are actively encouraging their supporters to die
Regardless of politics, ending the pandemic is largely up to the individual choices of each American. Vaccines are readily available to everyone over the age of 12. They are safe, effective, and free. They can protect our friends, families, and communities from life-threatening illness, prevent the vast majority of further COVID-induced death, and allow us to return to mostly normal pre-pandemic life. The choice is yours.
More information on COVID-19 vaccines is available at CDC.gov/coronavirus.
Nicholas Wilson is a Keweenaw Resident and a freelance journalist.