The COVID-19 Pandemic: Politics still plagues the pandemicJul 12, 2021
The explanation for the current plateau of the epidemic curve is obvious: a combined consequence of the highly transmissible Delta variant and the slowing of vaccination. Looking nationally, Colorado’s experience is shared with many states. The New York Times website shows a number of states with increasing case and hospitalization rates. At the moment, Colorado is 13th highest in terms of the rate of new cases and, notably, most of the 12 states with rates higher than Colorado’s have Republican governors. All of the 12 have full vaccination rates below 50%, some substantially, while Colorado is listed as having 53% fully vaccinated. With case rates of 23 per 100,000, Arkansas and Missouri are unenviably in the national lead with vaccination rates of only 35% and 40%, respectively, versus 48% nationally.
I worry that the stain of politicization persists and is costing lives. Polling suggest that my worries are justified. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll is telling. Political party (Republican, Democrat, or Independent) was strongly associated with either being vaccinated or intending to be, and with the participants’ views as to whether the risk of the Delta variant is exaggerated. The results—for vaccination: Democrats 93%, Independents 65%, and Republicans 49%; and as to the risk of the Delta variant being exaggerated: Democrats 12%, Independents 39%, and Republicans 57%. Interpretation of science has become too strongly based in politics. Fox News and other right-wing media channels are likely contributors to this unfortunate political divide on vaccination. Interpretation of science has become too strongly based in politics.
Efforts are widespread to combat this deeply rooted vaccine hesitancy, but they are not having the needed and intended impact on vaccination rates. A just-published study of Ohio’s Vax-a-Million campaign did not find a resulting surge in vaccination. Turning to anecdote, most of the five winners were already vaccinated before the lottery was announced. In Colorado, we have not seen an uptick in vaccination corresponding to the creation of incentives here.
Vaccine hesitancy and misperceptions about disease are longstanding but have not been so widespread nor reached this level of ferocity. In part, we face the legacy of the prior administration, including its chaotic efforts to control the pandemic and its repeated use of misinformation. I am mid-way through Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History by Washington Post reporters Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta. In over 400 pages, the book spans January 2020 through January 2021. As a pandemic completionist, I find new background and details in the book, along with reminders of that challenging year. My bottom line on finishing the book will likely be affirmation of what we already know—the mix of politics with this pandemic has been toxic and has cost lives. Ultimately, we need deep analyses that lead to a level of preparedness reflecting the lessons learned from this “nightmare scenario.”
One last politicized topic—guns. Yesterday, four individuals were arrested at a downtown Denver hotel with 16 long guns, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and body armor in their possession. Possibly, yet another mass shooting was averted. My wife and I live a block away from that hotel during the week. As I said following the 10 tragic deaths at King Soopers in Boulder, these shootings take place in our neighborhoods and must be prevented.
Jonathan Samet, MD, MS
Dean, Colorado School of Public Health