Members Only | September 27, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
America is more prepared for terrorism than anti-vaxxers
First it was covid vaccines. Now it’s everything else.
On 60 Minutes, Joe Biden declared the covid pandemic was over. He said, “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.”
That pronouncement was news to the president’s healthcare staff who scrambled for explanations after Biden’s comments went viral on social media and prompted a hashtag #TheCovidIsNotOver.
A half dozen unnamed officials told the Post the next day that Biden’s unequivocal statement undermines his own rollout of a new covid booster campaign and also damages coming efforts to get the Congress to authorize $22 billion in pandemic response funding.
But why do it if the pandemic is over?
Biden’s statement also contravened fact.
On the previous Friday, 107,066 cases of the covid were reported. That number does not include people who took a covid test at home and never reported their cases to local public health departments. So there are tens of thousands of unreported cases as well.
Between 400 and 500 Americans are dying each day from the covid – more than 3,000 a week. On Sept. 21, there were 419. There are about 30,000 hospitalizations daily. Among those, about 10 percent land in ICU. One in five covid cases results in the mysterious and disabling syndrome, long covid, which is, apart from the human toll, costing the economy billions in lost wages and unfilled jobs.
As disturbing as these numbers are, Biden is right in that January 2022 saw an average of 800,000 cases per day. From that vantage, it does look like the pandemic has ceased to peak.
But we know from three years of pandemic data that covid cases ebb in the summer and surge in the winter when people are more likely to be indoors and confined in unventilated spaces, unmasked.
The numbers rarely discussed are the vaccination numbers. Set aside for now (a story for another time) the uniformly terrible way the Centers for Disease Control has handled the pandemic.
The shift from the Trump administration to the Biden administration was barely noticeable. Major mistakes have been made by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky – so much so that she investigated the CDC herself and found it, but not her, wanting.
The area of biggest failure is vaccines.
By never clarifying that boosters were not boosters at all, but a third and essential shot to have full immunity, CDC botched their rollout.
The CDC also never stipulated that vaccinations were essential public health tools for schools and workplaces, and should not be viewed as arbitrary. Vaccines, already politicized by the MAGA right as a “woke” trend to “take away personal freedoms,” became even more politicized without the agency tasked with teaching the public.
As a consequence, the vocal phalanx of anti-vaccine protesters grew louder and even those who were not vaccine hesitant simply never bothered with the third “booster.” So while poor nations remain desperate for vaccines, Americans are hand-waving their necessity.
While the CDC website states that 79 percent of Americans age 5 and over have at least one shot, it also states that only 34.9 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated with two shots and a booster.
That’s not just redhat Magaland failing to get vaccinated. That’s also a lot of liberals, Democrats and progressives. Only 24.2 million Americans – that’s 7.2 percent – have had the second shot.
Biden’s dismissal of a pandemic that has killed over 1.1 million and disabled another 25 million with long covid unintentionally polarized the country on the issue of vaccines. People who call themselves not anti-vaxxers but “pro-vaccine choice,” “pro-safe vaccine” or “vaccine skeptical” feed off the administration’s convoluted messaging.
Still, if the only issue were vaccine-hesitancy, it could be somewhat manageable – at least until the next eventual surge. But it isn’t.
Anti-vaxxers – people who oppose vaccinations for a range of reasons from religious proscriptions to QAnon to Big Pharma conspiracy theories – are in the forefront of a growing political divide over vaccinations and its implications for public health.
Anti-vaxxers are also making us sicker.
The failure to immunize has resulted in more mutations and more – and more dangerous – variants of the coronavirus.
Anti-vaxxers have also brought back measles, mumps and now polio. As Rolling Stone reported in “Polio Is Making a Comeback. Thanks, Anti-Vaxxers!”: “If it seems like infectious diseases are coming at us faster, spreading more widely and persisting longer than they have in generations, it’s because they are, health experts say.”
“There are some more conservative states where we are likely to see other non-covid vaccine mandates under attack, and it is very worrisome,” Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials told Newsweek. “If we have some of these pediatric infectious diseases come back, it will be horrific.”
And coming back they are – in outbreaks of measles, mumps, whooping cough and tuberculosis.
The CDC’s own database bears this out.
There are fewer vaccinations among under-50 people nationwide, but those numbers are lowest in red states. The reappearance of polio and other diseases in wastewater underscores Plescia’s view that Gen X parents refusing to vaccinate their kids is a trend.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in July with the alarming statistic that the the covid-19 pandemic had fueled the largest continued backslide in [childhood] vaccinations in three decades. In 2019, just before the pandemic hit, WHO listed growing vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 threats to global health, citing an “infodemic” on social media and internet websites creating distrust of vaccines and urging it be addressed.
While Biden was making his declaration, Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the president, was sounding the alarm over vaccines. In a Sept. 18 interview in Financial Times, Fauci said, “I’m concerned the acceleration of an anti-vaxxer attitude in certain segments of the population … might spill over into that kind of a negative attitude towards childhood vaccinations.”
A few days earlier, Fauci had commandeered the Twitter account of HHS to discuss this issue. The longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and world-renowned infectious disease specialist said, “If you fall back on vaccines against common vaccine-preventable childhood diseases, that’s where you wind up getting avoidable and unnecessary outbreaks.”
The covid was the leading cause of death among US law enforcement in 2020 and 2021 due to vaccine resistance. For the second year in a row, the covid was the third leading cause of death in all age groups in the US in 2020 and 2021 and in line to be so in 2022 as well.
Misinformation and disinformation related to covid vaccines fomented by Fox, celebrities and conspiracy theories have caused this dramatic uptick in parents refusing to vaccinate children against diseases that only a few decades ago killed kids on a regular basis.
That these parents are often, as one Times report showed, literal rocket scientists who have still been caught up in these disinformation campaigns and who were themselves vaccinated as children is concerning to pediatricians nationwide.
Kate Williamson, a pediatrician, said she’d seen a rise in vaccine resistance. She told the Times, “I have this worry in the back of my mind — that we’re up against something that we have never seen before. To have something that could be anti-science as part of a political identity and culture is very concerning.”
Peter Hotez, of the Baylor College of Medicine and contributor to CNN and MSNBC, said, “The anti-vaccine movement is so strong, so well organized, so well-funded, I doubt it will stop at covid-19 vaccines.” In August, Hotez published a research paper in Nature on the damage done by this movement. He was unequivocal:
“I think it’s going to extend to childhood vaccinations.”
Vaccines have been settled science since the 18th century when British physician Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine, saving the world from a ravaging disease that had killed more than 20 percent of the world population. George Washington had a vaccine mandate for his troops at Valley Forge.
The monkeypox outbreak, with its painful and disfiguring pustules similar to smallpox, gave people a glimpse into what might happen if long-dormant diseases resurge.
Smallpox was eradicated in the US in 1949, globally in 1980. Polio was eradicated in the US in 1979, measles in 2000, whooping cough in 1945, mumps in 2003 – all due to vaccine protocols. But in recent years, outbreaks of each of these debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases have reappeared due to failures to vaccinate.
Initially, these outbreaks were local to religious communities, but then spread into suburban communities where families fell prey to internet misinformation about links between vaccines and autism.
Some of that misinformation was spread by celebrity parents of children with autism like Robert DeNiro and Jenny McCarthy.
The most prominent anti-vaxxer is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Kennedy’s own family has disavowed his stance. He has written an anti-vax book published by Simon & Schuster. He established an anti-vax foundation, Children’s Health Defense (CHD). In August, it was kicked off Instagram and Facebook for misinformation. The group had a half million followers at the time. Kennedy was kicked off Instagram in 2021 but has an active account on Facebook and CHD is on Twitter.
Regardless of the source of vaccine misinformation, the result could be catastrophic if the 22 diseases children are vaccinated against prior to their fourth birthday begin a comeback.
The herd immunity that eradicates diseases is created when more than 80 percent of a population is vaccinated. Lower that number even marginally and outbreaks turn into full-blown pandemics.
Hotez told the Times that the anti-vaxxer movement is incalculably dangerous. “This is a deadly movement,” Hotez said. “With things like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, we have lots of infrastructure.
“For this, we don’t have anything.”
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author of Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life. She has written for the Times, DAME and more. Follow her @VABVOX.