This is evident in one simple yet staggering statistic: More Americans have already died of covid-19 in 2021 (391,000 and counting) than in all of 2020 (385,000). How is this possible, given the widespread availability of safe and effective vaccines? The problem is that only 59 percent of the U.S. population has gotten fully vaccinated. We lag behind countries that boast far less in the way of resources, such as Mongolia, Ecuador and Cuba, because about 113 million Americans ages 5 and up have not fully availed themselves of these lifesaving medical breakthroughs. Of that total, 78 million people have not gotten even one dose.
What are these vaccine refusers thinking? Do they not know or care that unvaccinated Americans are dying at 11 times the rate of the fully vaccinated? Yet roughly 40 percent of the population has refused to get fully vaccinated, leaving the whole country vulnerable to worrisome new variants such as omicron.
At one time, there was substantial vaccine resistance among minorities. But now, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, vaccination rates among Whites, Blacks and Hispanics are almost identical. There are still sizable gaps based on education and age: Older, college-educated people are more likely to get their shots than the younger and less educated.
But the biggest gap of all is political: 90 percent of Democrats are vaccinated vs. only 61 percent of Republicans. Fourteen of the 15 states with the lowest percentages of fully vaccinated residents have Republican governors. Even masking is controversial in red states. In Miami last week, an immunocompromised Lyft driver was startled and grateful to see me wearing a mask — unlike so many of his passengers.
The result is that Republican areas have been hit harder by the pandemic in the past year than the blue states in the Northeast where it first struck. A study of county-level data finds that “new cases are now running 2.78x higher per capita in the reddest tenth of the country than the bluest tenth.”
Why would so many Republicans decide they need not get vaccinated? Because that is the message they are getting from their tribal elders. Fox News Channel, in particular, has become “covidiocy” central. It pumps out nonstop disinformation against vaccines even while enforcing a strict vaccine mandate of its own. (Employees must submit proof of vaccination or a daily negative coronavirus test to enter Fox’s offices.)
Fox News and its Republican allies politicize every twist and turn of the covid saga. On Saturday, for example, the hosts of “Fox & Friends” reacted to news of omicron as if it were a Democratic hoax to justify “more lockdowns.” Pete Hegseth said, “You can count on a variant about every October, every two years,” suggesting that Democrats were inventing omicron for electoral advantage.
Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.) — the former White House physician, if you can believe it — joined in the conspiracy mongering a few hours later. He tweeted: “Here comes the MEV — the Midterm Election Variant! They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots.” Kari Lake, a GOP candidate for governor of Arizona, chimed in: “They are going to try and sell us new ‘Variants’ for the rest of our lives if we don’t tell them to shove it.”
The rush to dismiss omicron as a hoax is demented and depressing on multiple levels. It suggests that Republicans have learned nothing from their unwillingness to take covid-19 seriously in 2020 because they thought it would hurt President Donald Trump’s reelection chances. But while Democrats benefited politically from Trump’s calamitous mishandling of the pandemic, its persistence, with its attendant supply chain woes and surging inflation, is now hurting President Biden. Thus, it is malevolent idiocy to suggest that Democrats are hyping the omicron variant for nefarious ends.
Indeed, at the same time that Republicans fight vaccine mandates and continue to play down the risk of covid-19, they also shamelessly attack Biden for not ending the pandemic. “I took President Biden . . . at his word when he said he was going to get covid under control,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “Unfortunately, more Americans have died this year than last year under covid.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board sounded a similar note, complaining that “Mr. Biden had no plan to deal with the large numbers of vaccine holdouts.” If only Biden could do something about the Journal’s proprietors, who also control Fox! This is akin to an arsonist blaming the fire department of not doing a better job of fighting fires.
You would think that such a shameless ploy — hampering Biden’s attempts to fight the pandemic and then hammering him for its persistence — could not possibly work. But in the idiocracy that America has become, this shameless and disingenuous argument could actually resonate.