As cases of COVID-19’s Delta variant surge, there’s a crisis of confidence emerging around vaccines. The U.S. enthusiastically embraced vaccines from (almost) day one, but now the country faces difficulty vaccinating the last 50 percent or so of Americans. Vaccine reluctance started with politicians such as then-vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and is now being driven by increasingly loud conservative voices who warn of the dangers of vaccination without any evidence. And the increasing call for renewed coronavirus restrictions is setting the stage for future vaccine weariness. Underneath all of these narratives and the exhausting rhetoric is a simple truth: vaccination is the only ticket back to how things were before 2020. The sooner the country realizes this, the sooner the country can ditch fearmongering and pseudoscience.
The science is abundantly clear that vaccines are very effective in preventing hospitalization and death. The protection even holds for more lethal, contagious strains of the disease such as the Delta variant. In fact, around 99.5 percent of people who have succumbed to COVID-19 in recent months have not been inoculated against the deadly disease. Despite these clear figures, some have stubbornly clung onto the idea that vaccines don’t work and/or are dangerous. Conservative talk-show host Phil Valentine told his listeners that people were “probably safer not getting” the vaccine unless they are high risk, ignoring that an increasing percentage of COVID-19 hospital patients are in their twenties and thirties. The radio host is now hospitalized with coronavirus, and his family reportedly regrets not being more “pro-vaccine.”
These loud anti-vaccine voices are not thriving in a vacuum. Critics of “establishment” medical advice seem more credible to millions of Americans, given the confusing messaging that is coming from policymakers not only in Washington, D.C., but across the country. The CDC has now reversed course and is telling even some vaccinated individuals to mask up in areas with “substantial or high transmission.”
This confusing, broad-based guidance will almost certainly lead to more mask mandates across the country, despite a lack of evidence that mandates (as opposed to mask-wearing itself) accomplish all that much. A new mask guidance could also further undermine the science behind the vaccines if individuals get the impression that even two shots can’t ensure safety.
The social consequences of inconsistent guidance are far from encouraging. Washington Post contributor Helaine Olen notes, “the emotional and practical whiplash of the past 18 months — Are we open? Closed? Masked? Unmasked? — has frayed nerves and left most people on edge. Simple, clear and consistent guidance is needed.”
Government guidance should continue to encourage vaccinated people to live a normal, fruitful life, while allowing business owners and entertainment venues to limit their interactions with unvaccinated people. It certainly doesn’t help that populous, coronavirus-prone states such as Florida are prohibiting businesses from “requiring patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-transmission recovery.” Other states have followed suit to varying degrees.
There’s also some legal ambiguity on this issue from the federal government.
While a business asking their employees for their vaccination status is not a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violation, the HIPAA Journal notes, “requiring employees to disclose additional health information such as the reason why they are not vaccinated could potentially violate federal laws.” Federal and state governments are making it increasingly difficult for employers and businesses to sanction people for bad behaviors that can have ruinous consequences for others. Collective punishment (i.e., renewed across-the-board mandates) simply results in a wearier population without encouraging vaccination.
The coronavirus endgame will likely be a combination of natural immunity, pills to treat COVID-19 symptoms, and hard-fought vaccination gains. All of these things will not happen overnight. In the meantime, governments must empower vaccinated individuals to live their lives and allow businesses to prioritize vaccinated patrons.
Politicians, bureaucrats, and talking heads should support a steady, evidence-based approach instead of undermining the science behind vaccines.