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Opinion The keys to ending anti-vaccine madness: Fear and the law

Bandages on a table at a vaccination site at Key Biscayne, Fla., on Aug. 24. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)
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After millions of dollars spent on public health awareness, endless pleas from elected officials and a slew of incentives (from free doughnuts to cash), it turns out that appealing to reason only goes so far.

For months, the share of “vaccine-hesitant” or anti-vaccine Americans hardly budged. In June, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found, “The shares of adults who are more reluctant to get the COVID-19 have remained relatively unchanged since January, with about one in five saying they either will get a vaccine ‘only if required’ for work or other activities (6%) or will 'definitely not’ get vaccinated (14%).”

The delta variant, followed by a newfound refusal to cater to the unvaccinated, however, has had a measurable effect. A new Ipsos-Axios poll finds that with concern about the coronavirus peaking, vaccine hesitancy is finally declining: “Only one in five (20%) Americans say they are not likely to get the coronavirus vaccine, the lowest level since we started tracking. Hard opposition, those not at all likely, has dropped to 14% of adults.”

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As the variant spreads in low vaccination states, fanned by MAGA governors who oppose vaccine and mask mandates, many parents are seeing the light, as well. The Ipsos-Axios poll reports: “The number of parents who say they are likely to get their kids vaccinated has surged over the last week, now two-thirds (68%) report they are likely to vaccinate their kids or they already have. Opposition to vaccinating their kids has dropped to less than a third (31%) of parents.”

Meanwhile, the vaccinated have lost patience with the unvaccinated, whom they now rightly regard as a barrier to getting back to normal. “Majorities of Americans continue to support policies requiring the use of masks in schools (70%) or public places (66%),” the Ipsos-Axios pollsters found. “Working Americans also continue to support vaccine requirements by their employer (57%).” And there is plenty of room to increase popular mandates, since only 19 percent of workers say their employer requires vaccination and just 54 percent require masks.

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This is the perfect opportunity to make more progress. The Biden administration has started to go after states that are making schools less safe, with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights initiating investigations in five states (Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah). As the department wrote in a news release, OCR has sent letters to those states “outlining how prohibitions of universal indoor masking prevent school districts from implementing health and safety policies that they determine are necessary to protect students from exposure to COVID-19, including those with underlying medical conditions related to their disability.” Court orders in Florida, Texas and Arizona and Arkansas have also enjoined bans on mask mandates, although Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed to appeal the court order. (The administration can presumably add Florida to the list of states to investigate if his appeal succeeds.)

The next step would be to condition funds for education, Medicaid or other big-ticket items on adopting mask and vaccine mandates. Moreover, President Biden has yet to require airlines to mandate that employees and passengers provide proof of vaccination. (The European Union recently removed the United States from its “safe list” because of the delta outbreak, thereby possibly leading to testing and quarantine requirements on unvaccinated travelers from the United States.) Now would be a good time for Biden to turn up the heat on local and state officials as well as the private sector. If eligible people insist on remaining unvaccinated, it should be increasingly difficult for them to interact with others.

Moreover, state and local law enforcement need to crack down on parents who resort to threats against school board members and disrupt public meetings. (Ironically, the people who scream “freedom!” the loudest want to bully others into submission.)

Persuasion has its limits, especially when a significant segment of Americans operates in a delusional world in which ivermectin, a drug used to treat worm infections, is preferable to a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration. If the delta variant does not scare them into a rendezvous with medical reality, government has both the power and responsibility to use legal compulsion. We must collectively reject bogus appeals to “freedom” from mask-wearing and vaccination so we can protect children and get on with the rest of our lives.