By Tom Baxter

The newest phase in the evolution of the nation’s response to COVID-19 was best articulated last week by an obviously exasperated Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.

“I don’t know. You tell me,” Ivey said when asked what she could do to get more people in the state which has the country’s lowest vaccination rate to get their shots. “Folks are supposed to have common sense. But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”

That distinction between the unvaccinated folks and the regular folks sheds the brightest light on what has changed in the nation at large. Ivey is a Republican governor of a deep red state who has signed a law barring schools and businesses from enforcing vaccination requirements.

But the virulence of the Delta Variant and the toll it’s inflicting on Red States has caused many conservative politicians and media figures to very carefully begin making the distinction Ivey was driving at. Regular folks don’t want to get sick. Regular folks aren’t so caught up in the anti-vax internet they ignore their doctors. Or at least Kay Ivey now thinks so.

Very few things in modern life come with a reliability of 99 percent, but in May, 99 percent of COVID-19 deaths were among those who were unvaccinated. The statistics for hospitalizations are similar. There might be arguments against the new vaccines which have been deployed for only a few months, but there’s no argument about their effectiveness against COVID-19.

At least not yet. A recent study in Israel showed that the Pfizer vaccine now is only 39 percent effective in preventing people from getting the Delta Variant, although the vaccine still is highly effective at preventing severe cases. The longer COVID-19 spreads within large pools of the unvaccinated, the greater the chance that new and more troublesome variants will develop.

There’s been a certain degree of affirmation, if not schadenfreude, among Democrats as the numbers have risen sharply in Trump states like Florida, Missouri and Alabama. That is misguided on two counts.

For one thing, there is a clear relation between vaccination rates and party affiliation. But party politics is not the only factor affecting vaccinations. The states in the most trouble now all have large minority populations who are either reluctant or find it difficult to get vaccinated. We’ve all read stories like the one about the right-wing radio host in Nashville who regrets some things he said now that he’s in a COVID ward, or the doctor in Alabama who says many of her patients thought COVID was “political.” But the COVID wards include Biden voters as well.

For another thing, the whole momentum of the Biden administration is based on beating COVID and returning to normal with a strong economy. All of that is endangered by this summer surge and the chaos it could wreak if it gets worse in the fall.

Very soon, the administration has to make some tough decisions about whether COVID vaccinations should be compulsory for health care workers, teachers, or other groups. Many of those on the right who have moderated their views on vaccinations in general are likely to shift quickly back to staunch opposition as that part of the debate takes shape.

For whatever blame Donald Trump and Fox may deserve for vaccine reluctance, they aren’t leading their followers. They’re struggling to stay in step. Virtually since the first days of the pandemic and without much urging, the part of America they speak to has shown a deep skepticism about social distancing, masks, the actual severity of COVID and its origins.

Sean Hannity showed an awareness of this last week, after saying on his television show that he believed in “the science of vaccination” and urging viewers to take COVID seriously. The following day he cautioned that he’s “not urging people to get the vaccine,” but to do their research and take the disease seriously.

It’s not very enlightening to compare the number of vaccinations now with the high in April, when there was finally enough vaccine for the many Americans who wanted the shot. It’s more realistic to look at the number of vaccinations by day, which have been inching up. That would be regular folks, belatedly coming into the fold.

Featured photo sourced via | @HarperTurek

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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