- Things are getting back to normal, but vaccine rates continue to lag in some parts of the country.
- Areas of low vaccine coverage will see surges, especially as new variants enter the mix.
- The government must engage in door-to-door outreach to get vaccine rates up, or risk COVID surges in under-vaccinated areas.
- Abdullah Shihipar is a writer who covers public health, class, and race.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Things are finally beginning to return to normal for fully vaccinated people. Those that have received their shot(s) are seeing friends again, meeting up in bars and restaurants, and engaging in activities they’ve been putting off for more than a year. Some states are even reaching upwards of 70% of their population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all on the decline and the US seems to finally be rounding the curve. With all this good news, it can be tempting to think that the pandemic is over.
Unfortunately, this is far from the case.
Globally, thousands of people continue to die from the virus each day and many countries remain in lockdown, unable to vaccinate their populations due to a lack of vaccine supply. Here at home, practically everybody who is being hospitalized and dying of the virus –– a number that is still in the hundreds per day – have not been vaccinated yet. Vaccination rates are also not consistent throughout the country, while states like Vermont have vaccinated over 70% of their population with at least one dose, states in the deep south like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana have vaccinated less than 40% of their population. In fact, the New York Times predicts it will take Alabama and Mississippi over a year to reach 70% of adults with one dose. At the county level, there are still many counties that have less than 30% of their residents fully vaccinated, compared to over 50%nationally.
Disparities persist as well – as of late May, only 22% of Black people in the US have received at least one dose, and vaccination rates for Black people are lower than that of white people in every state. According to the CDC, vaccine coverage tends to be lower in counties that had lower socioeconomic status and a higher number of households that had single parents, children, and disabled people.
The government needs to step in with resources and support to get more people vaccinated.
So why should you, as a vaccinated person, care?
While we may be able to return to our lives safely, pandemics do not end through individual actions alone. None of this occurs in a vacuum and until we get to a point where few people are dying of COVID, it will continue to be everybody’s problem. For one thing, this mixed vaccination coverage will create surges and hotspots in communities where vaccine coverage is low. This is especially a concern in the south as people head indoors because of rising temperatures. In these places, social distancing and masking should be reinstated. Unfortunately, now that the honor system for wearing a mask is all but gone, this seems unlikely.
Then, there are the variants. More transmissible and deadlier variants are spreading throughout the world. Britain and other countries are dealing with the Delta variant, whereas Brazil is struggling with the Gamma variant. In the UK, despite having a higher percentage of people with one shot, the Delta variant is now the dominant strain and threatens to delay reopening. The Delta variant will soon spread throughout the US, making the surges we see amongst unvaccinated people more severe. While there is thankfully no case of a variant completely rendering a vaccine useless, there are instances of it reducing a vaccine’s effectiveness. The vaccines are doing amazingly well against the novel coronavirus, but we still cannot remain complacent against the risk of those mutations.
So, why aren’t people getting vaccinated? Some people are worried about side effects and can’t take time off work, others think the vaccine isn’t free, and some are undocumented and are worried about immigration enforcement. Meanwhile, a recent poll taken by YouGov shows a third of Black and Hispanic respondents and more than a third of those who make less than $50k have not been encouraged to get the vaccine at all.
It’s time for the government to go all out
All levels of government in the US have been united in their message that it is up to individuals to get vaccinated if they want to. The federal and some state governments have set up incentives from free beer and sports tickets to lotteries. But these programs assume the problem is merely hesitancy and don’t actually address the reasons why people are hesitant. What we need is to bring the vaccines to the people.
Imagine a vaccination campaign where the federal government uses its resources to go door-to-door with multilingual information about vaccines. People can ask questions, get registered to get vaccinated, and request transportation or a home visit, which also allows the government to do follow up visits. In addition to this, the government could ensure “vaccine sick leave” and allow workers to take paid time off work to get vaccinated and recover.
The government already has the resources — FEMA, the Postal Service, and the Census Bureau — to reach as many communities as possible. We know from the census that when a proactive effort is made to reach people, participation goes up — this is what happened in New York City, which saw a historic response rate in a year where other places struggled. Already, some communities are utilizing the door-to-door approach, but we still need a coordinated effort led by the federal government to enact this on a national scale.
All of this creates an atmosphere of understandable fear and discomfort; which will create strains amongst some social circles as some of us are ready to go out and others are not. For disabled and immunocompromised people especially, these fears are not irrational. We won’t exit this pandemic as individuals. Either we do it together, or we remain stuck in it.