The Divided States
Brother vs. brother, vaxxers vs anti-vaxxers
Editor’s Note: Have a burning sensation? Consult your urologist. Have a burning question? Ask Matt Labash at firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions cannot be answered, but they will all be prayerfully considered, given a hot meal and a warm bed, and banked for future consideration.
What are we going to do with all these COVID anti-vaxxers? Should you take out the ones on the left and I’ll take out the ones on the right?
Dr. Anthony F.
What are we? Butch and Sundance shooting our way out of our hidey hole? We’ll never make it out alive. Like those doomed outlaws, we’re surrounded. We’ll likely die in a hail of gunfire. Or more likely, in a barrage of really acerbic tweets.
I proudly admit that I took the Trump Vaccine, and have encouraged everyone in my orbit to do the same. (Sometimes, to no avail.) Not only did it seem to me like the smartest health call, but it’s the least I could do to support our former president after he was generous enough to invent the vaccines in between rounds of golf and séances with his “super genius” uncle, the former MIT professor. (Though Trump doesn’t like to brag – it’s not his way). And while I hate to disappoint the scaremongers, neither did I, nor the legions of vaccinated people I know, suffer side effects. Unless you count smugness and unwarranted feelings of invincibility. (Half of us got infected with what we presume was Omicron anyway in the space of a month, though nobody I know ended up in the hospital.)
But I propose something truly radical to my vaccinated friends instead: how about we accept the unvaxxed? Since it’s really not our prerogative not to. Not in America, land that I love, which, if I want to keep it that way, increasingly means swallowing my desire to thump perceived knuckleheads who don’t believe the same way I do, even if peer-reviewed studies have proven me to be right 97.9 percent of the time. (Google it, doubters.) One of the blessings/hazards of living in a free country is that people are theoretically, you know……free. That means they’re largely free to do what they like, which will often conflict with what I like, or think is the best course of action. And vice versa. (They think you and I are knuckleheads, too, for rushing something into our bodies that just arrived about five minutes ago.)
Make no mistake, I have a ton of problems with the current anti-vaxxer impulse. I’ve found too many of its proponents to be gratuitously quarrelsome, ill-informed, paranoid, and bad at medical math. And here are some not-so-fun medical math facts: Since COVID washed up on our shores two years ago, 886,000 Americans have died from it. At the current clip, over a million will have died by early spring. To people who say this is “just the flu,” they should know that the very worst flu year on recent record - around 61,000 deaths in a year - is still 7.2 times less deadly than our average COVID year so far. In fact, there were 3,567 new COVID deaths just yesterday. Likewise, the unvaccinated are filling our ICU’s and/or dying at much higher rates. In Fayette County, Kentucky, 92 percent of COVID patients in the ICU are unvaccinated, as are 100 percent of those on ventilators. Those types of numbers are shaking out all over the place. In Washington state, if you’re unvaccinated and between 35-64 years old, you’re eight times more likely to be hospitalized than the fully-vaccinated are, and 13 times more likely to die of COVID than fully-vaccinated 65+ year olds. According to the CDC’s December numbers, the unvaccinated stood a 17-times-higher chance of being hospitalized than did the vaccinated who were ages 50 and older.
But even that avalanche of evidence doesn’t convince me that anti-vaxxers should have their livelihoods destroyed because they see things another way, some of the time, in good faith. (This being a novel coronavirus, it means it’s new – we often don’t even know what we don’t know, and are learning as we go along.) Nor does it mean they don’t have some legitimate objections about apparent vaccination inconsistencies, if we are as open-minded as we congratulate ourselves for being.
What Omicron has proven to anyone with basic powers of observation and even a room-temperature IQ, is that the vaxxed and unvaxxed can both spread it liberally. If the vaccines actually prevented people from spreading it, then I might sign up for mandates tomorrow. But what I can’t square is how, just because the unvaxxed get sicker and die at much higher rates, why that warrants upending their lives by say, prohibiting them from flying or working. Yes, they put more pressure on our hospitals. And I genuinely feel sorry for our doctors and nurses who have to put up with so much politicized COVID-denial rage. (Remember when we used to applaud our healthcare front-liners, rather than ignore or demonize them, the latter of which is truly disgraceful?) But people who smoke a pack a day and eat boxes of Ring Dings for dinner also tax our health-care system. We don’t tell them they can’t eat at restaurants.
Purported science-lovers love to “follow the science” when it’s breaking their way, politically, but as soon as it doesn’t – see denying biological gender realities, denying fetal viability, etc. – all of a sudden, their science adherence tends to grow a little lax. If you’re a true seeker of truth, you let inconvenient facts work their voodoo on your opinions, too. Which requires admitting that sometimes your absolutist beliefs are just that – beliefs – not, necessarily, incontrovertible facts.
Even H.L. Mencken, who was sure of himself an awful lot, once admitted:
Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on "I am not too sure.”
As much as I respect our medical professionals – many of whom deserve medals for what they’ve endured the past two years - I do have to laugh, sometimes, when people blithely say, “Talk to your doctor about the best course of action.” When I contracted a mild case of COVID in December, I did talk to a doctor, asking him if I still needed to get the booster, which I had been about to do when I got sick. He smiled – at least I think he smiled, he was masked – and said, “You just got the booster. Nature’s booster.” When I solicited a second opinion from my regular doctor – who works at the same practice right down the hall – he told me, “You most likely have an increased immune response at this point in time. Having had two shots and now the virus itself, you should have fairly high antibody levels towards the virus. It is still recommended that you get the booster…….I would think some time in the next six to eight weeks would be reasonable. Watch the news for updates as this may change over the next eight weeks.”
Doctors, it turns out, are largely like us – stumbling around in the dark, reading the internet to work out the latest clues and particulars, trying to put the jigsaw puzzle together just like me and you. As Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenwriter William Goldman once said of the entertainment industry, “Nobody knows anything.”
So let’s admit, even to the unvaxxed if we have to, that there are some things we think we know, and there is much we still don’t. That the vaccines are one of three tools in our toolkit (the others being masking and distancing), but that none of these are eradicating the problem, even if they can mitigate it more than the let-‘er-rippers like to admit. In the meantime, maybe what we should all be doing is proceeding with caution and compassion and humility through what has proven to be an unending ordeal. This is good medicine, even if next-to-nobody wants to take it. And here’s hoping that some day soon, Mother Nature takes her knee off our necks, and is more merciful to us than we’ve been to each other.
Bonus track: An apt anthem for the moment - my very favorite Marvin Gaye song, “Piece of Clay.”
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