A Gallup poll from last week makes the partisan divide on COVID-19 vaccines clear. Ninety-two percent of self-identified Democrats said that they have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Only 56 percent of Republicans made that same claim.
Chris Cillizza of CNN reported last week that as a result of what he called the “politicization” of COVID-19, “The 12 states with the highest case rate for every 100,000 people are all run by Republican governors. The 13 states with the highest hospitalization rate per 100,000 residents are all run by Republican governors. The 15 states with the highest percent of deaths per 100,000 are all run by Republican governors.”
Lauren Weber, writing for Kaiser Health News, reported that, “Rural Americans are dying of COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of their urban counterparts.” It was the other way around at the start of the pandemic until vaccines became widely available. A majority of urban Americans are taking advantage of the vaccination program. This is not the case for rural Americans.
For example, in the city of Austin, Texas, 70% of the citizens have had at least one vaccine dose, according to the Austin Health Department. However, in rural Mount Pleasant, Texas, population 16,000, the vaccination rate is about 39%, according to the Titus Regional Medical Center there. Eleven patients died of COVID-19 in just the first two weeks of September.
Seemingly not alarmed with the sweeping spread of COVID-19 within their states and rural counties, some Republican governors are pushing for an even broader anti-vaccine agenda targeting children. In Tennessee, for example, Republicans fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, their vaccine director, and ordered the health department to stop all vaccine outreach to children, parents, and schools.
Fiscus said her efforts to promote vaccines — literally part of her job description — got her in hot water. It seems Republicans running Tennessee objected to her health department’s efforts to promote routine vaccinations for infants and young children, as well as flu shots. Keeping everyone in the dark on vaccines seems to be the new GOP policy on childhood health these days. Folks are wondering: Is this part of their “pro-life” agenda?
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently appointed Dr. Joseph Ladapo as the state’s new surgeon general and health department director. Ladapo is noted for his anti-mask and anti-vaccine stances, as well as his promotion of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19. Studies have shown that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment for COVID-19. He is also noted for spreading misinformation about the effectiveness and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Meanwhile, Florida State Sen.Manny Diaz, chair of the Health Policy Committee, announced that his committee will be reviewing vaccine mandates for children and schools in the state. Included in his “review” will be vaccines for diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis, polio, measles-mumps-rubella, chickenpox, flu, pneumococcal, and hepatitis B. As stated by Florida Rep. Carlos Smith, “God help us all.”
In New Hampshire, where the GOP controls the state legislature, childhood immunizations are also under review. House Bill 220 calls for “An Act relative to medical freedom in immunizations. …” Freedom for some Republicans seems to be the ability to spread deadly or disabling childhood infections to other children.
As Judy Stone, an infectious disease medical provider in Florida said, “You think COVID-19 is bad? Add epidemics of highly infectious measles or other childhood diseases to the mix. With no masks and no vaccinations, the GOP leadership’s choices will lead to the deaths of many children in the name of freedom.”
The importance of vaccines, of course, is that they don’t just impact the health and well-being of the vaccinated. It is not a “my body, my choice” proposition like some folks are trying to sell. Poor vaccine coverage impacts the wellness of everyone in the community, and this is especially so with childhood vaccines. Most pediatric offices don’t allow unvaccinated children in their practices for a reason. Unvaccinated children pose a significant risk for the infants and children too young to receive lifesaving vaccines. Unvaccinated children literally put the health and well-being of other children at risk. A decision not to vaccinate one child impacts all the other children in that child’s circle just as the decision not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine impacts all of us.
Any talk of “reviewing” mandates for childhood vaccinations is reckless and endangers our nation’s children. The politicians promoting these “reviews” understand this and likely have their own children vaccinated. But their intent to satisfy their base and stay in power seems to be more important to them than promoting effective public health policy and protecting the lives of our children.
As Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote for The Atlantic, “Some Americans want to create an alternative America, where we have no responsibility to one another. That America has never existed.”
Tom Zirpoli is a professor and the coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster and his column appears Wednesdays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.