To those unfamiliar with the history of world religions and disease, the formidable duo shown here are Hosogami (left) and Shapona (right). In two different societies of yore, in the 600s and 700s A.D. in Japan and in the 18th and even into the 19th century in Nigeria, the fervent built religious rites around these smallpox deities.
Worshippers hoped various behaviors would appease their lords of infection, with later experts coming to believe that the priests of Shapona (aka Sopona) also helped to spread the highly contagious and disfiguring illness by scratching villagers as part of extortion schemes. Science and vaccinations eventually eradicated smallpox globally, with infectious disease and public health experts historically mindful how fear, ignorance, and societal pressures can lead numbers of people to embrace counterfactual and cultish responses to scary illnesses.
Now, can President Biden and his administration — with a new and tougher program to get millions of unvaccinated Americans to finally get coronavirus shots — back down what increasingly has become a politically partisan and almost theological opposition to proven methods to quell a disease that has killed 660,000 Americans already and is taking 1,500 lives each day?
Biden, as the New York Times reported, threw the force of the federal government into a more compulsory vaccination campaign, mandating shots for health workers, “federal contractors and the vast majority of federal workers, who could face disciplinary measures if they refuse.” He said in an address to the nation that he wants companies employing more than 100 workers to protect their employees by requiring vaccinations or frequent testing. He said companies should give workers time off to get shots and to recover, if necessary, from the vaccines’ occasional discomfort. The president said he had negotiated with major retailers and providers to ensure a big increase in available coronavirus testing.
Patience wears thin but partisan resistance runs thick
Biden has resisted mandates. He had started his term seeking to lower tensions and to urge and cajole Americans to see how wondrous vaccines worked and to roll up their sleeves quickly. Now, he minced few words, telling the unvaccinated that the patience is wearing out among the majority of Americans older than 12 who have gotten inoculated and who are following public health experts’ recommendations to distance, cover their faces, and avoid closed and poorly ventilated spaces.
Republican leaders, notably governors of Southern states hard hit by the pandemic, rose as expected to assail the administration’s efforts to quell the coronavirus. They accused him of an overreach of federal authority and of abridging individuals’ “rights,” all while ignoring legal and historic precedents for presidents to take aggressive actions against infectious outbreaks.
Who can forget that Gen. George Washington in January 1777 ordered his troops be vaccinated against smallpox? Who can forget that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, rejected the claim by a Lutheran pastor that his individual rights trumped the state’s demand that he get a smallpox shot?
History notwithstanding, multiple GOP leaders have said in theological chorus that they soon will sue the administration to stop its effort to combat the coronavirus by increasing the numbers of vaccinated Americans. Biden replied to the legal threat, saying, have at it.
Public opinion polls and news reports show increasing frustration and anger by the vaccinated, with support also spiking for stricter vaccination and face covering requirements at work and in schools (the administration also said it will boost fines for travelers who flout mask rules on public buses, trains, and airplanes).
Do the politicians who sound by the day more like shamans of anti-scientific hokum really want to defy the growing factual evidence that face masks and vaccines are significant ways to quash coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and deaths? Yes, breakthrough cases occur. With almost 6 billion coronavirus shots given globally (including hundreds of millions in this country), and side effects rare, who still wants to argue about unknown risks from the vaccines?
Unvaccinated 11 times more likely to die from coronavirus, study shows
Studies show the vaccines’ protective capacities may diminish over time and federal experts have yet to weigh in on whether booster shots will be needed, as the administration has said is likely to occur.
Still, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered yet more, substantial evidence why the vaccine resistance, which polling shows has grown starkly more partisan, is confounding, news media, including the Associated Press, reported:
“One [U.S.] study tracked over 600,000 Covid-19 cases in 13 states from April through mid-July. As Delta surged in early summer, those who were unvaccinated were 4.5 times more likely than the fully vaccinated to get infected, over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die … ‘Vaccination works,’ Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC’s director, told a White House briefing [on Sept. 10]. ‘The bottom line is this: We have the scientific tools we need to turn the corner on this pandemic.’”
The consequences, in the meantime, have only worsened for the unvaccinated and especially for the health systems that must care for them when they get infected with the coronavirus.
Hospitals in Idaho, Alabama, and Fresno, Calif., have become so overwhelmed with intensive care coronavirus cases that they are on the brink of or have begun to make dire, emergency decisions about which patients are best suited to receive the limited medical resources available (the “rationing of care” that political partisans once used as a bogeyman against expanded health insurance).
Patients with emergency medical needs unrelated to coronavirus infections are experiencing long waits or diversion to sometimes distant facilities with capacity to help them when local hospitals or clinics cannot because they are over stressed with pandemic care. This doesn’t always work out well for those with urgent needs.
Kids and health care suffering damages
Across huge swaths of the country, doctors, nurses, and other health workers are expressing deep anger, frustration, and overpowering sorrow and exhaustion as they treat those in this Delta variant surge — patients who mostly are the unvaccinated and are suffering and dying as victims of a now preventable illness.
With young people flocking back to in-person classes, schools, educators, parents, and pupils are juggling a jumble of testing regimens, mask and vaccination requirements (or not), and coronavirus outbreaks and quarantines of sizable numbers of students in suddenly emerging hot spots.
The pandemic’s rising heartbreak, of course, is the increasing cases, hospitalizations, and deaths of pediatric patients. Kids younger than 12 are ineligible for vaccination, and experts warn that parents should wait for clear data on the safety, effectiveness, and dosage of shots for children. The data do show, however, that far fewer youngsters struggle with the coronavirus in areas where community spread is curtailed by high vaccination rates among those 12 and older.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by an array of awful circumstances and things, including:
- dangerous drugs
- risky and defective products
- abuse and neglect in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
- and car, motorcycle, and truck crashes.
In these cases, a crowd of problem people and institutions — these can include doctors, hospitals, insurers, regulators, and politicians — may press victims to move on, settle, and they fast forget the lonely agony of the suffering. It can, however, take a long time for patients to recover from terrible illness or injury. Harms can last a lifetime. Patients may need medical services, as well as financial and other support for months or years. They also need closure and justice for wrongs done, as well as the sense that they may be able to help others avoid the problems that afflicted them.
We are not done with the coronavirus and the huge trauma it has inflicted on us all. The country got to savor this summer, even briefly, what the world might be like with this nightmare quelled more and greater normality restored. Please get tested, if appropriate, and vaccinated. Officials are trying to make it as easy and convenient, as possible — and it’s free. All medical interventions carry risk. But vaccines’ benefits long have been shown to far outweigh their harms. We cannot worship disease and death and embrace nihilism and fatalism. We can quell the coronavirus and we must do so before it mutates again in ways that can be even more disastrous.