Anti-vaxxers and the never-ending pandemic

Vaccine hesitancy slows full recovery. Mandates for all indoor public spaces are necessary.

A man wears a "I Do Not Comply" pin at a protest against masks, vaccines, and vaccine passports outside the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control on March 13, 2021, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

In 2020, American taxpayers poured over $700 billion into the Department of Defense. At the same time, nearly 600,000 Americans died of a virus within our borders.

It’s a telling equation of American priorities and the perception of freedom.

This imbalance has been the mantra of a selfish minority of so-called patriots for the entire pandemic. Now, with an end in sight, many of the same minority are refusing or delaying the free COVID-19 vaccine, threatening our nation’s recovery. It’s perhaps one the worst displays of American patriotism in our nation’s history, and it has helped prolong the deadliest global pandemic in over a century.

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In other circumstances, such passive acts of violence might be punished for willingly inflicting harm upon fellow citizens. Instead, politicians are tiptoeing around how to achieve herd immunity while still appeasing the science deniers and pitiful chirps of an orange man’s leftover army.

This approach of hesitancy — in lieu of strict mandates — is less than ideal.

Efforts to straighten the contorted minds of conspiracy theorists is not only an impossibly difficult task, we simply don’t have the time to wait for a minority to come to its senses.

Hesitation over nationwide vaccine mandates has led some experts to throw up their hands and consider the goal of herd immunity all but impossible. Instead, they are setting their sights on modest, short-term drops in cases and as many vaccinations as possible. It’s a start, but a dismal lack of ambition for a nation that not long ago raced to the moon.

The trouble is, we don’t know what will come of this virus, and a large unvaccinated population is a risk to us all. While we hope the virus might eventually run its course, or at least mutate to a less severe form, patches of unvaccinated communities remain endless breeding grounds for new variants. If we never achieve herd immunity, it all but ensures an active cycle of outbreaks for an undetermined period of time.

The timeline of variant mutation for SARS-CoV-2 in the future is unknown, but frequent cycles are not yet out of the question. The initial strain, detected in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, took many weeks to reach the shores of America. Once it arrived, an initially slow pace of infections quickly grew to the point of overflowing morgues in mere months, a terrifying graphic of exponential — not linear — growth.

For the first many months the virus rarely mutated in advantageous form. It was only after the population became less immunologically naive that they began to pop up with intensifying frequency: B.1.1.7, B.1.351, P.1. and more. In each instance, the new lineage had lurked for weeks before exploding in case numbers, highlighting the same propensity for exponential growth if left unchecked.

The “Number of COVID-19 variants of concern (in Colorado) by collection date,” as provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Case numbers presented here are reflective of a randomly selected 7% genetic sequencing rate of positive cases at present, with earlier sequencing rates being lower. This graph does not reflect full cases and cannot be compared directly to cases. Instead, variants of concern data were later applied by the state agency in predictive modeling to accommodate the 7% testing rate to determine wider community spread, representing state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy’s estimation of VOCs making up over half of new cases as of early April. Due to a standard lag in sample collection time and genetic sequencing, the last two weeks (or approximate) on the graph are incomplete. CDPHE maintains VOC rate-of-growth data internally and provided it to Newsline upon inquiry.

By April of 2021, less than a year and a half after the virus’s inception, the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 was no longer estimated to be the dominant strain in multiple states across the U.S., including Colorado, marking significant gains of the variants in mere months. Even with overall COVID-19 cases dropping as vaccinations increase — a trend that should simultaneously reduce the likelihood of mutations — the combination of vaccinated and unvaccinated people might present a new selective pressure on the virus to mutate. This could potentially counteract, at least in part, the expected decrease in mutation rate from a drop in cases. The concern of selective pressure was also addressed by Dr. Anthony Fauci at the beginning of the year, who noted that if the second doses were too heavily delayed, it could also apply selective pressure on the virus to mutate.

Although the majority of Americans are pro-vaccine, faced with not meeting herd immunity many still hedge at the idea of enacting a nationwide vaccine mandate for indoor public spaces. I’m not one of them. It’s clear the personal choice of not getting the vaccine significantly impacts the nation at large, so why should we hesitate to crack down? It’s by far the fastest way to reopen in full safely for longer.

Arguments of impinging freedom ring hollow for me, the same way they do for wearing a mask. Again, it affects us all, so in public spaces we should act for the good. 

Concerns over privacy also ring hollow. I can either provide a piece of paper at a restaurant now, or I can risk someone ransacking my failing body in the hospital — or worse, in the morgue. Privacy may not be perfect in health, but it’s lacking far more for the sick or the dead.

At the end of the day, I see vaccine hesitancy as anti-American — it impacts everything from public health to our economy, and we ought to call it what it is. The best part is that if you don’t want the vaccine to be mandated, you have a choice: Choose to get it now, before it’s mandated.

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