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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

200 million doses? Check. Half of adults vaccinated? Double check. Herd immunity? Still not close

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Rate of vaccination. (Note that the dark bars on the right are incomplete data and don’t represent an abrupt decline.)

From the day vaccines became available, there has been a high level of resistance among Republicans. Assumptions that Republicans would “quietly” accept the vaccine while continuing to spout anti-science views on other topics have proven unfounded. 

In fact, Republicans have only increased their vaccine resistance in the last week. While the Johnson & Johnson announcement made little difference to public sentiment overall, it coincides with a 5% increase in Republican vaccine hesitancy. At this point, expecting Republicans to “do the right thing” out of the spotlight on vaccines is about as reasonable as expecting that they’ll do the right thing on gun safety or protecting democracy. It is not happening, and will not happen without some incentive.

Republicans now saying “No” to vaccine by more than a 3 to 1 margin.

Republican hesitancy is leading not only to disparity in the rates of vaccination among states, but massive imbalances within states. As the Chicago Tribune reports, clinics in deep-red southern Illinois have been able to fill only about 10% of their vaccine appointment slots, despite dropping all requirements. Meanwhile, vaccine demand is still so great in the Chicago area that area clinics cannot meet the demand. 

One big reason is that communities of color are strongly supportive of the vaccine, and anxious to gain immunity against a deadly disease. In Civiqs data, just under half of Black Americans say they’ve already received a dose of vaccine, and those remaining are more than three times more likely to say “Yes” to the protection offered by the vaccine rather than saying “No.” Vaccine demand also remains high in Latino communities. Meanwhile, thanks to that high level of resistance by Republicans, white Americans overall are 2.5 times more likely to turn down vaccination.

The same dynamic is being seen in Kansas, where KCUR public radio reports that over half of all counties actually “rejected” their allocation of COVID-19 vaccine this week, even though only about a third of residents have been vaccinated. These counties are hitting a plateau of vaccination well below half of adults. Five counties in Kansas haven’t accepted any vaccine for over a month. Vaccine is actually expiring or being wasted because opened vials contain more than a single dose.

In short: More vaccine is needed in communities of color, where demand remains high. Meanwhile, as in Illinois and Kansas, many Republican areas have a surplus of both vaccine and facilities.

Black Americas continue to say “Yes” to the vaccine by more than a 3 to 1 margin.

With a week to go before his 100th day in office, President Joe Biden has met the steep goals he set for himself when he came into the White House. More than 200 million doses of vaccine have been administered (213 million and counting). Over half of all adults in the nation have now received at least one dose of vaccine. Those are real accomplishments—huge accomplishments—and they represent turning around a program that was flailing and transforming it into a logistical powerhouse that has mastered providing states with vaccine when promised.

However, even as this is happening, the United States is still seeing new COVID-19 cases at a rate that matches the highs of the summer spike during 2020. The same goes for the rate of deaths, with the nearly 900 deaths logged on Tuesday being far too typical. 

The accomplishments so far are awe inspiring. And also not enough. To achieve herd immunity, the United States needs to vaccinate somewhere between 70% and 90% of the population, where the range of numbers represents different measures of the transmissibility of the many COVID-19 variants. Right now, if every American adult who says they will get vaccinated actually gets the vaccine, the total number vaccinated will hit: 69%.

There’s nothing magic about that 1% difference. But it’s frightening to see that all the work done to make the vaccine safe, effective, and available is running up against a wall composed of deliberate ignorance and fear. It means that tens of millions of Americans will remain unvaccinated. It means that COVID-19 will never really “go away,” but will become an endemic disease prone to throwing off new variants. Which is, perversely, great news … for companies that manufacture vaccines.

Right now, there are two things that should be done:

  1. Get the vaccine where it’s wanted. There is nothing just, fair, appropriate, or moral about having 90% of vaccine in some areas go unused, while other areas are still having trouble getting enough to meet demand. Delivering more vaccine to communities that are anxious to get a jab will protect more people, more quickly. It’s the right thing to do.
  2. Provide incentives to vaccination. Those incentives can be negative, as in “you can’t board a plane without proof of vaccination.” Or they could be positive, such as providing vaccinated Americans a free pass to national parks. Whatever they are, they will need to be substantial. After all, we’re talking about white people who have already spurned a free Krispy Kreme every day for a year, and that’s a pretty high hurdle.

President Biden will address the nation today on the subject of vaccines. It’s expected that he will officially announce hitting the 200 million dose target. But hopefully, he will also explain how the nation will go forward with the next 200 million doses. 


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