For Chatham’s unvaccinated, it’s time for a reality check

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It’s time for a reality check.

That’s the message from both a World Health Organization epidemiologist and the director of the Chatham County Public Health Department (see our story) in light of what we’re seeing with COVID worldwide and locally: a reversal of spring’s positive, encouraging trends and a surge in new coronavirus cases.

The unpleasant truth — in Chatham, across North Carolina, across the U.S. — has become even more evident in the last two weeks.

• In areas where there are low vaccination rates, coronavirus infections are surging at an alarming rate. New cases are up nearly 70% across the U.S. and 77% in North Carolina. Chatham County’s rolling 7-day average of new cases increased 255% from June 12 to July 12, and saw a one-week case count jump of 150% last week.

• Nearly all the recent COVID-19 deaths, and all but a sliver of the new cases, are among the unvaccinated.

• The Delta variant is far more transmissible than earlier strains. Not necessarily more dangerous, but more contagious.

• The virus is continuing to mutate.

But the good news most of us already know: vaccines are effective — against COVID-19, against the Delta variant, and in preventing serious illness in “breakthrough” cases among those fully vaccinated. With so many people remaining unvaccinated, however — and in Chatham and the U.S., it’s NOT due to availability — we’re a long way from being “over” COVID.

We’re not at the end of this pandemic.

In the United States, 56.1% of the population is partially vaccinated; 48.6% of the population is fully vaccinated. In Chatham, it’s 50% and 47%, respectively. But vaccination rates have slowed to a near-crawl among the half of the population not vaccinated. The most troubling aspect: resistance to the vaccinations is growing. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated that 29% of Americans said they were unlikely to get vaccinated; 20% said they definitely would not. Both of those numbers are increases from three months ago.

Vaccine “hesitancy” has become outright vaccine “hostility” among at least one-fifth of the country, a trend which is likely also true in Chatham County. That the vaccines have become political isn’t a revelation. COVID-19 as a government “plot” or conspiracy or hoax is what has been described as an “article of faith” among many of the unvaccinated, who cite distrust in science as one reason not to “get jabbed.”

The same poll showing an increase in vaccination resistance indicates that 47% of Republicans said they “likely” or “definitely” wouldn’t get vaccinated; among Democrats, that number was just 6%. Conservatives cheer when former President Donald Trump takes credit for developing the vaccines — as he’s repeatedly done — and then, inexplicably, turn around and claim the vaccines are killing people. There were more cheers when speakers at a recent conservative rally celebrated the fact that President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of Americans at least partially vaccinated by July 4th wasn’t reached.

Messages of skepticism, distrust and hostility are amplified time and time again on social media platforms and by some news sources. A recent report traced 65% of the shares of anti-vaccination misinformation to just 12 people — people who have made misleading claims, told lies and promulgated outright fabrications on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You can find similar claims on a handful of Chatham-based Facebook pages and local chatrooms, which claim, among other things, that the pandemic is just a way for the government to spy on you or control you. The words of credible public health officials are pooh-poohed and drowned out by never-vaxxers who claim the vaccinations contain microchips or are a part of a massive plot.

Here’s where that puts us: coronavirus skeptics, many of whom complained vigorously about mask mandates and restrictions, are contributing to putting us on the path we’re on now. The dropping of mandates gives the virus, which by its nature wants to spread, plenty of opportunity to do just that among the unvaccinated — which will lead to fresh rounds of mandates and restrictions as cases rise.

“It’s like we’ve been to this movie several times in the last year and a half, and it doesn’t end well,” said Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “Somehow, we’re running the tape again. It’s all predictable.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization epidemiologist who called for the “reality check,” said “we’re in a bad place right now globally.”

“We’re getting further away from the end than we should be,” she said.

The vaccines in place can cause side effects. On rare occasions, they can be dangerous. But they’ve passed intense safety reviews, and as cases surge, one thing is clear: they work, even in preventing serious illness or even symptoms in “breakthrough” cases among the vaccinated.

So it’s not the time, as we heard last week, to decide to “double down on making opposition to vaccination a central front” in our endless culture war.

It’s time, then, for the unvaccinated to get real — about the vaccine and about the consequences for them, and the rest of us, for hesitancy and hostility.


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