It's time to recast anti-vaccination governors as mass murderers

A comparison of COVID deaths in two Republican-run states with wildly different approaches to the virus

By Terry H. Schwadron
Published July 16, 2021 1:33PM (EDT)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on February 27, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Begun in 1974, CPAC brings together conservative organizations, activists, and world leaders to discuss issues important to them. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on February 27, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Begun in 1974, CPAC brings together conservative organizations, activists, and world leaders to discuss issues important to them. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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Twitter argument, which often seems to serve as a substitute for longer-term peer research, neatly captures the science versus ideological governor about the current state of coronavirus.

The would-be debate pits the judgments of Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who has argued consistently for more government measures to stop disease, and the actions of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who basically has resisted most governmental intervention in the pandemic as abridging personal liberties.

She is not named, but she has come to represent a whole lot of Republicans who put individual choice before government efforts at prevention. But the argument suggests that the policies of  Noem and other Republican governors who have resisted aggressiveness towards first masks and lockdowns, and now vaccinations, have caused a lot more hospitalization and deaths. Indeed, analyses by The New York Times, CNN and others all show that there is a strong correlation between whether states voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and low vaccination rates.

Of course, Noem would resist any notion that her policies have killed people, but instead has supported the right of individuals and businesses to stay open, alive and free to make whatever decisions they wanted. Other Republican governors in Texas and Florida even barred cities from ordering more contained lockdowns or mask-wearing policies.

In that regard, covid has proved the kind of medical and political opposite of say, abortion, which, though not an epidemic, prompts strong feeling among liberals for individual choice and a desire among Republicans to insist that government policy reflect what has come to be seen as a partisan policy against abortion.

South Dakota and Vermont

Specifically, Dr. Jha compares the experience over the last two months of Vermont and South Dakota. They are two states with Republican governors and similar populations, demographics and median incomes that took completely different routes to get to their low current rates of coronavirus infection and hospitalization.

What distinguishes them is that Vermont got there by vaccinating 75% of its population, and South Dakota about 50%. Conclusion: South Dakota reached similar current-day infections by higher immunity—from more cases of coronavirus before May. Vermont has seen 258 covid deaths; South Dakota, 2,039.

"You can see it in the suffering of the people of the two states, deaths per capita from covid in Vermont versus South Dakota," said Jha.

It's not hard to conclude that it must have been considered perfectly okay in South Dakota to have higher death and hospitalization numbers, so long as no one was forcing preventive measures on the population.

Is it fair to call Noem a killer by failing to address the coronavirus with aggressive public policy? When New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo was found to have undercounted dying coronavirus patients in nursing homes, Republicans were quick to call him a killer, and even called for criminal charges.

Did Noem and others commit murder? She'd counter, as she and followers of Donald Trump have, that lockdowns and the rest kill in their own way, and that the state cannot legally enforce masks, lockdowns or vaccines.

"So, yes, [both] vaccines or infections work for population immunity," tweeted Dr. Jha. "One is much better."

The Twitter discussion, like all of them, was mixed, and reflected no shortage of partisanship.

Several suggested comparing other states in like fashion, while others cautioned that plenty of people are continuing to get sick while even having been vaccinated. One poster insisted that "one [approach] is science, the other is genocide," but most offered sufficiently respectful comments to make it a discussion.

Covid Still Looms

While most in the United States are ready to move on from coronavirus, Japanese officials are barring spectators from the Olympics and mutations of covid are still alive and causing mayhem among younger adults who have declined vaccinations. Joe Biden is begging local officials to undertake yet more aggressive, even personal neighborhood appeals for Americans to vaccinate.

And the rest of the world reports a whole lot of anxiety about the virus without access to vaccination and confusion about a third of the US population that is resisting the cure that they themselves want.

New data analysis by researchers at Georgetown has identified 30 clusters of unvaccinated people, most of them in the southern United States, that are vulnerable to surges in covid cases and could become breeding grounds for even more deadly variants. The areas all show low vaccination rates and significant population sizes across large swaths of the southeastern United States and a smaller portion in the Midwest.

It's a repeat of the Vermont-South Dakota debate, over and over. Just this week, we saw Republican reaction in Congress to Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra calling for an effort to go "door-to-door" to campaign for vaccines as an abridgment of civil liberties.

Republican governors see a political upside to supporting a partisan view of the pandemic and science. The majority of the country sees the opposite. So, increasingly the disease map is a patchwork of neighborhoods or larger areas where vaccination programs deal with continuing medical uncertainty, worry about vaccination for the very young, racial or ethnic hesitance and committed political opposition to government programs.

We're still hearing arguments that people can be somehow magnetized or indoctrinated by vaccinations that stimulate an immunological response. Or that government is using vaccines to subdue their political independence.

This Twitter debate shows that it is better to be here, alive to continue arguing, than is to die when ideology substitutes for science.


Terry H. Schwadron

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