Opinion | A Covid Vaccine Crossroads

Vaccines are the great success of the pandemic. Americans should be celebrating these breakthrough innovations that U.S. industry produced at breakneck speed. But instead even vaccines are becoming another front in the culture war.

About 65% of Americans over the age of 12 and nearly 90% of those 65 and older have received at least one dose. Widespread inoculations have resulted in plunging cases, hospitalizations and deaths in recent months even as most states lifted their lockdowns and mask mandates.

Cases have fallen by some 90% and hospitalizations nearly as much since their January peak. Deaths are 95% lower, and hospitals have more room to admit less ill patients. Returns are diminishing on each new vaccination as herd immunity approaches, but the societal goal should still be to vaccinate as many adults as possible. The more vaccinations, the lower the chance that breakouts this fall and winter could burden the hospital system and result in lockdowns.

Most Americans believe the personal benefits from vaccination outweigh the potential risks. Governments haven’t needed to resort to coercion, though some have tried to prod people with financial incentives. Yet the question now is what to do about the third of Americans who haven’t been vaccinated, especially as the Delta variant spreads.

Experts have been guilty of overplaying the risk of new variants to justify lockdowns. But the Delta variant deserves special caution. It is estimated to be more than twice as contagious as the original strain. The


vaccine is also between 10% and 30% less effective in blocking transmission of the variant, though it still appears to be more than 90% protective against severe illness.

All of this means breakthrough infections are more likely to occur, and more people will have to be inoculated to achieve herd immunity. That’s why we’re seeing cases increasing, especially in pockets with low vaccination rates. Many of the unvaccinated are young adults who haven’t got around to it or don’t feel threatened by Covid.

But resistance has also formed among conservatives who are skeptical of pronouncements by public-health experts and politicians, many of whom insisted without evidence that school closures and economic lockdowns were necessary to contain the virus. Many Democrats, including Kamala Harris and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, politicized the vaccines last fall to take down

Donald Trump.

Now some of the same people are disparaging the unvaccinated as backwards or crazy, much as they do people who hold sincere religious beliefs. Many of them, including

Anthony Fauci

and Democratic politicians, have little credibility with half the country. But well-respected Republicans like

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

could help by speaking up about the benefits of vaccination.

It should bolster public confidence that government health bodies in the U.S. and other countries have analyzed rare adverse side effects. These include myocarditis in young adults from the Pfizer vaccine, and Guillain-Barré syndrome from the J&J vaccine. Their conclusion is that the benefits outweigh the potential risks even in sub-populations.

The calculus for school-age children will be different because their Covid risks are so much lower, and trial data won’t identify 1 in 50,000 events. There’s no need for K-12 schools to mandate vaccines, but private employers and universities should be allowed to if they think it will reassure workers or customers and keep their workplaces safe.


One question is how much coercion to apply to the vaccine hesitant. In a free society, this should be as little as possible. Rather than mandate vaccines, employers perhaps could require the unvaccinated to get tested regularly. The NFL has required daily testing, social distancing and masks for unvaccinated players and banned them from sauna and steam rooms.

GOP politician are oddly now talking like libertarians on mandates while espousing state power to block private actors from enforcing their own standards for ensuring a safe workplace and reassuring employees. Republicans in more than a dozen states have introduced legislation that effectively bars private entities from requiring vaccinations.

Florida Gov. DeSantis has signed a law prohibiting businesses from requiring proof of vaccination, which drew cheers on the right but has irked businesses. Norwegian Cruise Lines wants to mandate its passengers get vaccinated to reduce the risk of outbreaks that could shut its cruises down, and this week it sued the Sunshine State.

Audio of conservatives at the recent CPAC convention cheering that President Biden missed his vaccination goal also suggests some vaccine opposition on the right is politically reactionary, like the left’s criticism of some Covid medicines espoused by Donald Trump. It won’t help the GOP politically to sound like anti-vaxxers, especially with the suburban women they will need next year to take back Congress. You can oppose state coercion but still favor the life-saving benefits of mass Covid vaccination.

While the Biden administration plays for time, some lawmakers believe sanctions would be the faster route to establishing whether the origin of covid-19 was a lab-leak in Wuhan, China. Image: Roman Pilipey/Shutterstock

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