The top health officer in a rural Maryland county had the audacity to say in public that it’s “foolish to not receive the vaccine” for the virus that has now killed more than 740,000 people in the United States. Imagine that.
Imagine a county official saying such a thing while a vocal (or quietly stubborn) minority of anti-vaxxers continues to resist public health advisories that most of us followed months ago.
Imagine such a bold utterance as an unprecedented number of health officials quit their jobs under pressure or got the ax. Just last week, the Republican-majority Harford County Council voted to fire the county health officer, a decision praised by those who see vaccination requirements not as lifesaving public policy but as government overreach.
In the midst of this lousy atmosphere, Bob Stephens, the health officer for Garrett County, speaks truth to the thickheaded.
A post this week on the county health department’s website says Garrett’s virus indicators “are headed in the wrong direction,” noting that COVID-19 rates in Maryland’s western-most county continue to go up as rates elsewhere in the state fall.
“In fact,” Stephens said, “Garrett County’s rates are higher than any of the counties that surround us. For a long time, our rates were the best in Maryland and better than those of the West Virginia counties that directly border us, but now our numbers are higher than any of theirs.”
Garrett County reported 68 infections per 100,000 residents over the last week, while the statewide rate was 12.5 per 100,000.
As of Wednesday night, Garrett’s seven-day positivity rate for the coronavirus was 15.6% while Maryland’s was down to 3.2%. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said throughout the pandemic that a positivity rate below 5% and sustained for 14 days greatly reduced the risk of transmission of the disease.)
“We are seeing the consequences of our high numbers, which include deaths and long-term effects of COVID,” Stephens went on. “Businesses are closing and cutting back hours not because of any mandates, but because they have staff who are sick or quarantined. In addition, hospital and nursing home staff are working long hours to meet the high demands brought on by the added burden of COVID.
“Frankly, I believe it is foolish to not receive the vaccine. It has been proved to be effective and stunningly safe — many hundreds of times safer than acquiring the virus and also safer than not having immunity. PLEASE GET THE VACCINE. If you have concerns, talk to your doctor.”
Anticipating backlash, Stephens added this:
“I am certain that some may take offense and maybe have hurt feelings by this statement, but I believe it is my obligation to give this strong statement. In public health we have the goals of promoting health, preventing sickness and protecting the community. The best way to do this right now is to have as many persons as possible vaccinated against COVID.”
Props to Stephens. If he sounds a little desperate, it’s understandable. While 66% of Maryland’s eligible population has been fully vaccinated, Garrett County, with a population of just under 30,000, lags behind at 50%. You’ll find roughly the same rates in the next two counties to the east, Allegany and Washington. Instead of trying to grab attention with ridiculous calls for seceding from Maryland and joining West Virginia, as they recently did, Republican politicians in the western counties should join Stephens and other health officials in calling for their constituents to get vaccinated.
That brings us to just about the last thing I want to say about all of this.
It has been said that the wide variations in vaccination point out disparities — that is, Maryland counties with the most affluent and best-educated populations have the highest rates of vaccination, far outpacing the poorer, more rural areas.
But I go beyond that. I think the most harmful disparity in the country is the disparity in the understanding of the common good.
If anything tested the willingness of 21st century Americans to go all-in for a greater purpose, it was the pandemic of 2020-2021. The vast majority of us passed the test, but millions of Americans failed. They rejected, mocked and opposed expert advice offered through the federal, state and local governments. The result was a pandemic that lasted longer and killed more of our fellow citizens than it should have.
And then there’s the matter of personal responsibility. I used to hear about it all the time from moralizing conservatives who decried the welfare state, single mothers, generational poverty and urban criminality. Most of that, they argued, resulted from people failing to take responsibility for their lives.
But where’s the personal responsibility in rejecting vaccines?
Many of the personal choices we make affect the general welfare of the communities around us. Personal responsibility is not only about the individual but about the whole — that is, the care and feeding of the democracy, understanding the larger purpose of each endeavor. Those who get vaccinated do so as a matter of personal health but also for the greater good.
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The failure to see that by so many, including self-styled “patriots” in red counties across the country, points to the devaluation of personal responsibility and the common good as central tenets of American life. That’s among the many sad things we’ve had to witness during the pandemic.