The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Anti-vaxxers tout ‘medical freedom’ — and raise the death toll

A 62-year-old nursing home resident receives a coronavirus booster shot in New York in September 2021. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Victor Rohe, a longtime Republican activist and former New York City police officer who also previously worked in the financial services industry, came down with covid-19 last year but decided not to seek hospital treatment. Online videos raised questions in his mind about patient care in Sarasota, Fla. He also regarded vaccines with skepticism. “Calling it a vaccination is a joke,” he told The Post’s Tim Craig. “All it really is is a government-mandated shot to inoculate people to the fact that the government owns your body, and you do not.”

Mr. Rohe is part of a slate of four conservative candidates now running for seats on the nine-member board that controls Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the city’s flagship public hospital. At least three of the candidates are skeptical of coronavirus vaccine mandates and are rallying behind a slogan of “medical freedom.” The term, which has a long and deep resonance in U.S. history, is increasingly being used by conservatives nationwide to appeal to those who oppose vaccine mandates and who sought coronavirus miracle cures such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine touted by some politicians but declared useless by medical experts.

Mr. Rohe and his fellow candidates reflect a larger and quite worrisome trend. The pandemic has amplified anti-vaccine sentiment, and in some cases, it has devolved into general hostility toward science and medical expertise. This might be the age of the mRNA vaccines that saved millions of lives, but it is also a period in which anti-vaccine campaigns cost lives. By one account, since coronavirus vaccines became widely available in 2021, some 200,000 deaths in the United States could have been averted if patients had not gone unvaccinated.

Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine, who is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and developed a low-cost coronavirus vaccine now being used in India, is at the forefront of those warning about the destructive rise of anti-science and anti-vaccine forces in the United States and abroad. He warns in Nature Reviews Immunology that anti-vaccine campaigns hatched in the United States are spilling over into other parts of the world. “Anti-vaccine videos from a Fox News anchor and other materials, including [Anthony] Fauci memes, circulate widely in South Africa,” he wrote. “Additional surveys find that large numbers of South Africans distrust the safety or effectiveness of covid-19 vaccines.”

In the United States, vaccines and mandates have provoked deep polarization. In an April survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, respondents were asked about whom they had “a great deal or a fair amount of trust” in to provide reliable information about coronavirus vaccines. While 86 percent of Democrats said Dr. Fauci, only 25 percent of Republicans did. Eighty-nine percent of Democrats expressed trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 41 percent of Republicans.

Unfortunately, a dangerous cocktail of doubt, suspicion and fear about vaccines has blended with mistrust of government and health authorities, often accelerated by social media and exploited by politicians. The response must be to broadcast the truth: Vaccines have proved safe, effective and lifesaving. That means freedom — from death and suffering.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Editorial Page Editor David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).