JIM SHULTZ: The battle over Covid vaccination

Jim Shultz

This week the United States will pass another grim milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic, 800,000 Americans dead in less than two years. To put that into perspective, that is like having the same number of deaths as on 9/11, every day, seven days a week, for nine months straight. An average of 1,200 Americans are dying from Covid now every day. Here in Niagara County, the numbers are rising again as well, with 1,540 active cases this past weekend, 60 of them in the hospital, and another 16 people dead in a week.

With well-tested and effective vaccines available that reduce both infection and death, why is that?

Nearly a third of the nation remains unvaccinated. People have their reasons. Some believe that if they’ve had Covid already they have all the immunity they need. The research, unfortunately, says otherwise. Some think that because they are young and strong they will be able to fend it off on their own. That belief has not worked out well for the more than 20,000 Americans younger than age 40 who have died so far. Others worry that there will be side effects down the road, like infertility. There is no evidence to back this fear, but the actual risks of Covid are real.

A good measure of ongoing vaccine resistance is about something else: resentment at what some people consider an invasion of their personal freedom. This is even more the case as more employers consider making vaccination mandatory. After all, what is more personal than getting injected with a vaccine? Many of those who aren’t vaccinated also say they are tired of vaccinated people acting like they have some sort of impenetrable super shield against Covid when they do not. The result is that a medical issue has become a partisan one, with deadly consequences.

According to the latest figures, more than 90% of Democrats are now vaccinated, but fewer than 60% of Republicans are. As a result, people living in communities that heavily supported Donald Trump are now three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than people living in communities that voted for President Biden. That’s not because of some new strange variant that targets Republicans, or because Trump voters are older. It is because those who remain unvaccinated are overwhelmingly now the ones who get the most sick and who die.

Recent studies have documented that people who are not vaccinated are somewhere between 10 and 20 times more likely to die from Covid than those who are. While people who are vaccinated can still get Covid, they generally they have more mild cases. The majority of those getting hospitalized and dying are unvaccinated. They are not dying because of bad luck. They are dying because of a choice.

An emergency room doctor in rural Michigan recently shared the story of one of his patients:

“A young patient sick with Covid-19 was admitted with dangerously low blood oxygen levels. His spouse and infant child came in to say goodbye just before he was sedated and intubated. ‘I don’t think I’ll see you again,’ he said. He died before the end of the week. He was unvaccinated. Losing a patient is never easy. Losing one so senselessly, when the death could have been avoided with a free, safe and effective vaccine, is devastating.”

We live in a moment in which everything from the mattresses we sleep on to the canned beans we eat has been captured in the exchange of partisan venom. So it is no surprise that political side-taking has crept into people’s thinking about a vaccine against a deadly virus.

To be clear, I know people who have made the choice to remain unvaccinated and I am not accusing them of being stupid. Everyone has their claims and reasons and different people make different choices about risk all the time. The problem, in this case, is that the choice to remain unvaccinated is not just a choice that affects that one person.

Because the unvaccinated are at such higher risk of getting sick, they are also much more likely to get someone else sick. Maybe it will be the person next to them in line at the store. Maybe it will be their unvaccinated toddler niece. But, like choosing to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking too much, choosing to remain unvaccinated (for whatever reason) is a choice that affects other people — sometimes in very tragic ways.

The virus does not care if you are Republican, Democratic, Libertarian or a socialist. It doesn’t care who you voted for. It seeks only to invade the bodies of those who are the least protected against it and to spread. What we don’t need in this moment is more partisanship and misinformation (no, the vaccines do not carry any hidden tracer microchips, nor do they give you Covid). What we do need is more basic common sense, and an understanding that the choices we make are not only about us.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. See his writings at www.jimshultzthewriter.com and email him at: jimshultzthewriter@gmail.com.

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