The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is learning not to fret over vaccine deniers

President Biden joins the White House covid-19 response team’s virtual meeting call with the National Governors Association at the White House on Dec. 27. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Almost two years after the country first shut down to protect itself against the coronavirus pandemic, President Biden is grasping a changing environment, both medical and political. The result could well encourage responsible Americans to get on with their lives while allowing recalcitrant vaccine refusers to face the consequences of their reckless conduct.

On the medical front, not only have we developed multiple vaccines (including boosters), along with oral treatments for those who get covid-19, but we also now have far more reasonable rules for quarantine. The Post reports: “Federal health officials on Monday shortened the recommended time Americans infected with coronavirus should isolate from 10 days to five if they are asymptomatic — a decision they said was driven by a growing body of research about when people are most infectious.” In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut the quarantine period from 10 to five days (with five days of mask-wearing) for those exposed but not boosted, and recommended that those who already “received their booster shot do not need to quarantine following an exposure … but should wear a mask for 10 days.”

The cumulative effect is to de-escalate the response to omicron for vaccinated and boosted Americans, for whom the risk is minimal. The changes will reduce workplace interruptions and aid in our economic recovery. As we recognize that covid-19 is not a deadly or even severe disease for the vast majority of responsible Americans, we can stop agonizing over “cases” and focus on those who are hospitalized or at risk of dying.

Omicron may be highly contagious, but the media’s obsession with case numbers is unwarranted. It is only the willfully defiant unvaccinated Americans who remain at risk. Frankly, there is not much anyone can do about them other than treat them when they wind up in emergency rooms.

Biden has also recognized that the problem of the unvaccinated is actually the responsibility of red-state governors who have hindered vaccination efforts and encouraged risky behavior. The Post reports:

“Look, there is no federal solution,” he said after joining the White House covid-19 response team’s regular call with the National Governors Association on Monday. “This gets solved at the state level.”
In his first public remarks about the pandemic after Christmas, Biden sought to highlight what his administration is doing to respond to the omicron variant outbreak that is sweeping the United States and the world. The president pointed out that the availability of vaccines has left Americans in a much safer place today than at the beginning of the pandemic.

The federal government has done its job, vaccinating more than 200 million Americans, developing and delivering booster shots, and conducting a massive public-health education effort. We have already seen the contrast between blue states with competent, responsible governors and red states with MAGA pot-stirrers in charge. The top five states for vaccinations — Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts (under the leadership of non-MAGA Republican Gov. Charlie Baker) — voted overwhelmingly for Biden. The five worst —Idaho, Wyoming, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana (despite a Democratic governor) — all voted for former president Donald Trump by double digits in 2020.

Likewise, as NBCLX reported, “States with the U.S.’s lowest vaccination rates lost residents to COVID at a rate two to five times higher than states with high vaccination rates in 2021, according to an analysis of the country’s 458,000 COVID-related deaths and nearly 500 million vaccines administered this year.” The states with the highest deaths per 100,000 — Oklahoma, Alabama, West Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky — are mostly deep red. There is no doubt their vaccine resistance resulted in more deaths. NBCLX reported: “Among the 15 states with highest COVID death rates in 2021, 11 ranked among the 15 lowest for vaccination rates, according to the CDC.” These states remain in the grips of right-wing media and MAGA politicians’ anti-vaccine scaremongering even as Trump has come forward to support boosters.

Biden has correctly shifted the responsibility for the worst results to vaccine resistors, but he could go a step further and highlight the best and worst states each week on hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations, underscoring best and worst practices. Red-state governors and MAGA rabble-rousers have gleefully impaired the vaccine effort, as they could turn around to blame Biden for the ongoing pandemic. But if they are scrutinized for their own poor performance, they might stop their obstruction and start vying for better rankings among the states.

None of this suggests Biden is indifferent to the plight of the unvaccinated. To the contrary, he has undertaken herculean efforts to educate them, enlist conservatives in vaccination efforts and push them toward vaccination with mandates. But as he told Americans in his remarks on covid-19 before Christmas, he cannot force people to be vaccinated. He can excoriate the purveyors of anti-vaccine propaganda and try to reason with those still entranced by MAGA anti-vaccine lunacy. But he need not carry the burden of the former’s malicious conduct or the rotten choices of the willfully unvaccinated.

He should continue to drive vaccination efforts and treatment breakthroughs, but he cannot keep wringing his hands over those who recklessly endanger themselves. Right-wingers who keep whining that federal mandates are intrusive (or even tyrannical) will see which Americans are responsible and which are not. It will be quite a reflection of the benefits of embracing scientific reality and tuning out right-wing nonsense and MAGA blowhards.