The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New covid variant. Same Republican denialism.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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As the omicron coronavirus variant spreads around the world, it’s worth remembering that its existence is a reminder of the importance of high vaccination rates. The omicron variant was first detected in southern Africa, which has been woefully under-vaccinated thanks to the failure of wealthier nations to deliver sufficient supplies of vaccines. If only Republican lawmakers, after more than 777,000 deaths in the United States and the overwhelming success of vaccines for millions of Americans, would finally stop undercutting mandates and other policies to boost vaccination rates here at home. That would be a foolish hope.

On Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” for example, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) pointed to recent declines in covid-19 cases and deaths in Florida as a victory for “natural” immunity. “In some studies that I have read,” she said, “natural immunity gives you 27 times more protection against future covid infection than a vaccination. And so we need to take all of the science into account and not selectively choosing what science to follow when we are making policy decisions.”

Mace is likely referring to one Israeli study (not “studies”), which did indeed find what she claimed. But speaking of “selectively choosing what science to follow,” Mace didn’t mention that other studies have found the opposite. More broadly, pitting natural immunity against vaccination is itself misleading Americans. As The Post recently reported, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention review of more than 90 studies and papers found that “for people who have been infected … vaccination provides a boost in the immune response and further reduces the risk of a repeat infection.” To imply that people should become infected rather than getting a shot is dangerous — especially when the former comes with a massive death toll.

Over on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) similarly played with the gray area of natural immunity. “We have 1.6 million Mississippians that have been vaccinated. That’s not enough,” he admitted. “But in talking to our state health officers, we believe that somewhere between 80 to 85 percent of Mississippians have some level of immunity, either natural immunity or immunity from having taken the shots.”

So why not support vaccine mandates to boost that natural immunity and help those who don’t have it? Reeves argued that the president’s effort has backfired, “hardening those individuals who were not interested in getting vaccinated.” It’s true that one’s vaccination status heavily correlates with their political views. But by his own logic, a united, bipartisan front in favor of mandates would go a long way toward softening that resistance. Instead, Reeves is silent.

Also silent is Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). “Vaccines work,” he first acknowledged on “Fox News Sunday.” But then the man who styles himself “Wyoming’s doctor” repeated Reeves’s flimsy talking point that the president’s mandate “hardened” vaccine skeptics. He then tried to frame the mandate as an economic mistake as well: “We have 10 million job openings in this country and yet the president, with his mandate, wants to fire people who have been going to work every day since the pandemic started.” Never mind that the minimal job losses from vaccine-related firings would be dwarfed by job losses from a protracted pandemic.

Barrasso capped off the misdirection by noting that “more people have died of covid under President Biden than did in all of 2020.” That true statistic was stripped of two important pieces of context: First, community spread of the virus wasn’t identified in the United States until late February 2020. Second, while the current White House is doing everything it can to keep that death toll as low as possible, the man in charge in 2020 let more than130,000 people die thanks to rank incompetence — according to his administration’s own virus response coordinator Deborah Birx.

Most politicians are acutely sensitive to public opinion, but usually less so when it comes to matters of life and death. Not so with today’s GOP. Just as it’s become trendy among Republican governors to fund projects protecting against “extreme weather events” — while refusing to utter the words “climate change” — it’s hard to shake the feeling that most Republican lawmakers know vaccines are by far the best hope for dealing with the virus, but are too scared of voters to support mandates or other policies that would boost vaccine uptake. Instead, they cite misleading statistics, accuse others of “politicizing” the issue and offer thin excuses. After all, what’s thousands of lives, next to a few political careers?