Washington Whispers: Stop Coddling the Unvaccinated!
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Warning: this column is not for the faint of heart. But someone’s got to say this, because it’s a matter of life and death. If you don’t want to get vaccinated—if despite everything that’s been publicized about the dangers of Covid-19, you won’t even wear a mask—then go ahead. Get the virus, for all I care. But do it quickly and stop endangering the rest of us by escalating the spread of the extremely contagious Delta variant. Stop endangering people who have been vaccinated and are taking appropriate precautions but have underlying conditions that make their resistance to the virus less than adequate. Stop endangering even those of us who are vaccinated and do not have such underlying conditions.
I am not addressing those of you who want to get vaccinated but for a variety of reasons have trouble getting access to the vaccine. Or those few who have a legitimate medical reason they cannot tolerate a mask or vaccination.
But to those who refuse the vaccine because they’re in love with Donald Trump’s fascism and to those who the media are calling “vaccine hesitant,” I would say: the vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson have been in use for many months. The side effects have been minimal, especially compared to the danger of illness and death from Covid. And there are plenty of reliable scientific and medical sources that anybody can now access for good, solid information. There is no excuse for getting your information by rumor from your brother-in-law or your neighbor or some Facebook post on the Internet—or Fox News for that matter. Although now, mirabile dictu, Fox and the scrum of right-wing politicians who make a living off of that misinformation, are finally recognizing that Covid is killing off their pool of voters. They have abruptly, belately, changed their tune and are also suddenly pushing people to get vaccinated.
Due to the emergence of the Delta variant and the number of unvaccinated people, Covid numbers are again on the upswing around the nation. Confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide quadrupled in July, from about 13,000 cases per day at the start of the month to more than 54,000 now. The highly contagious Delta variant now comprises more than 80 percent of the nation’s new cases.
According to Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), new data shows the Delta variant, now the dominant strain in the US, behaves “uniquely differently from past strains of the virus,” indicating that some vaccinated people infected with that variant “may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” The CDC is now recommending that everyone wear masks indoors and in locations with high Covid transmission rates, whether vaccinated or not.
So are an assemblage of others. Nearly 60 major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and the American Hospital Association are calling for mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers.
Though some healthcare systems—Houston Methodist, New York-Presbyterian, and Mayo Clinic—have imposed a mandate, many private health care companies have not yet done so. According to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and analyzed by Leading Age, which represents nonprofit nursing homes and other elder care providers, more than 38 percent of nursing home staff were not fully vaccinated as of July 11. According to the American Hospital Association, fewer than 9 percent of hospitals had required their workers to get vaccinated as of last week. Some institutions gave as the reason for their delay their lack of sufficient staff members and fear of losing more staff if they mandated vaccination. Some cited a fear of lawsuits by employees. Nevertheless, this exposure of patients and the vulnerable elderly to unvaccinated healthcare workers is particularly unconscionable. It is shocking that medical personnel and major medical facilities have not already required vaccination for those that come into contact with patients.
While the Biden administration has taken the position that it is not the federal government’s place to impose a nationwide mandate for the public, it is doing so for federal workers. On July 29, President Biden announced that every federal government employee will be asked to attest to his or her vaccination status. (It is unclear what is meant by “attest,” but let us hope that better proof will be required than a mere declaration.) Employees who refuse to attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location. They also must remain physically distant from all other employees and visitors, comply with a weekly or twice-weekly Covid test, and will not be permitted to travel for work. Federal contractors will also be required to ensure their employees are vaccinated.
The Department of Veteran Affairs is imposing its own mandate, requiring front-line workers, including physicians, dentists, podiatrists and registered nurses, to get fully vaccinated within the next eight weeks. Whoever fails to do so will face penalties including possible removal.
Federal workers will be able to appeal vaccine mandates based on legitimate medical or religious reasons and receive due process.
The armed forces are adding the Covid vaccine to the vaccines those in the military are required to take.
As for state and local action, New York and California are leading the way. California Governor Gavin Newsom is requiring California’s 246,000 state employees to verify that they’ve been vaccinated or face regular testing. Newsom is also instituting partnerships with private companies to do the same.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has stated that New York’s state employees will be required to show proof of vaccination or face weekly testing. Healthcare workers at hospitals who deal directly with patients will be required to be vaccinated without the option of substituting regular testing.
New York City is requiring all municipal workers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 by mid-September or be tested weekly. This includes school educators and staff, the Police Department, the Fire Department, and all other city agencies. Mayor Bill de Blasio has also requested private employers to set vaccine mandates for their workers. Some experts have urged de Blasio to be even more aggressive, arguing that the new rules may amount to a testing mandate, not a vaccination mandate, and that weekly testing will not sufficiently control the highly infectious Delta variant.
In the private sector, Morgan Stanley, the Washington Post, Facebook, Google and Netflix have now said they will require employees to be vaccinated, with limited exceptions for medical or religious reasons.
More than 600 universities have announced mandates for students or employees.
Broadway theater owners and operators will now require performers, backstage crew, theater staff and theatergoers to be vaccinated and wear masks in order to attend performances. Children too young for vaccination will be allowed to attend if accompanying adults present proof that the child has had a recent negative Covid test. But the Metropolitan Opera plans to bar children who are too young to be vaccinated.
Though the National Football League (NFL) has not mandated vaccination, it is imposing restrictions and financial penalties on players and their teams for games canceled because of outbreaks caused by the unvaccinated—exerting a very effective monetary pressure on players and staff to get vaccinated.
Opponents of Vaccine Mandates
James Bopp, Jr., a lawyer for eight students opposing Indiana University’s vaccination mandate is representative of the opposition. He maintains that their case turns on the right to “bodily integrity and autonomy.” According to the New York Times, Bopp, who works with America’s Frontline Doctors (an organization questioning coronavirus vaccines and promoting alternative treatments) has argued that the government is “forcing you to do something you strenuously object to, and having your body invaded in the process.”
The federal district court judge in that case weighed individual liberty against public health and found for the university. The students are appealing.
I agree with the judge’s decision. With serious, life-threatening epidemics, it is appropriate for public health concerns to take precedence. But even apart from that question, Bopp’s argument doesn’t hold water. No one is forcing any of us to have a vaccine injected into our bodies. No one is being held down while a needle is forcibly stuck into his or her arm. You have a choice—in fact, multiple choices. You can: (a) get the vaccine; (b) get tested regularly for the virus; or (c) choose not to attend the school or continue in a job that requires vaccination.
As French President Emmanuel Macron said forcefully in late July: “What is your liberty worth if you tell me you don’t want to get vaccinated? And tomorrow, you infect your father, your mother or myself. I am a victim of your freedom.”
The bottom line? If you are unvaccinated, you pose a threat not only to yourself but to others of spreading Covid, and thwarting the ability of society to ever escape the virus and its variants. Although individual liberty is to be prized, your freedom must end where it infringes on mine—and definitely where it threatens my health and right to live.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.