Vaccine disinformation and partisan politics are killing us — literally

America has a storied history of immunization — but our response to COVID has been hopelessly distorted so far

Published August 11, 2021 5:45AM (EDT)

Man on an armchair watching many televisions that only broadcast news about COVID-19 (Getty Images/Tiero)
Man on an armchair watching many televisions that only broadcast news about COVID-19 (Getty Images/Tiero)

More than 615,000 Americans have died during this life-changing pandemic. In recent weeks, the delta variant of the coronavirus has led to a dramatic increase in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Even with the widespread availability of vaccines, we have not been smart enough, determined enough or strong enough to finally defeat this public emergency. If we could successfully put a man on the moon 50 years ago, surely we can figure out how to eradicate this virus. But we have not. 

The first vaccine was rolled out last December. Two more were available soon thereafter. Yet just 50% of all Americans are fully vaccinated as of now. This fact is both alarming and tragic. It is alarming because Americans do not seem to understand the importance of immunization in defeating the coronavirus. It is tragic because this painful and sorrowful pandemic will not be stamped out soon at this rate.

Vaccines are the safest and most effective way to end the pandemic. This is not opinion. This is a scientific, medical fact — a certainty. But it will take reaching herd immunity to accomplish this goal. And, according to public health experts, upward of 90% of Americans will have to be fully vaccinated before COVID-19 in all its variant forms is effectively expunged.

Two major roadblocks have interfered with our ability to win this pandemic war.

First, the pandemic and the vaccines have been politicized from the very beginning. Responses to both have been a litmus test for devotion to a particular political party. Republicans, as a group, have downplayed the pandemic, have undervalued the need for mitigation measures and have been reluctant to get vaccinated. Democrats, by contrast, have acknowledged the severity of the pandemic, have utilized mitigation measures and have eagerly been vaccinated. The best predictor of whether a person has been vaccinated is his or her political affiliation. That is the essence of politicization.

Second, misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines has been counterproductive to our national response. Millions of Americans still believe the pandemic is overblown. Millions of anti-vaxxers hold the belief that our vaccines are untested, unsafe or ineffective. Misinformation has been largely promulgated by Republican elected officials and by right-wing news outlets. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, have also allowed dangerous misinformation to spread. Science and medicine have been cast aside. Public health experts have been ignored.  

That combination of politicization and misinformation has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, a wrecked economy, widespread anxiety and depression and a lack of accurate understanding of the usefulness of vaccines. We now have an undefeated pandemic and a coronavirus variant that is spreading like wildfire among the unvaccinated. If we do not reach herd immunity soon, vaccine-resistant variants are all too likely to emerge and kill millions more. The lambda variant, for example, may be vaccine-resistant.

We are calling for a coordinated effort by political and medical leaders to address these two problematic influences in our country. All political leaders need to make clear in their words and deeds that vaccinations are not a partisan issue. Elected Republican officials need to encourage their supporters to be vaccinated as soon as possible. Medical experts need to continue to inform the public about the safety and effectiveness of our vaccines. Herd immunity is a concept poorly understood by many Americans — but it's absolutely crucial, because we must reach that level of nationwide immunization that will finally end this pandemic. That is an achievable goal. But to achieve that goal in the shortest amount of time, vaccination mandates in our states, cities, schools, colleges and businesses are almost certainly necessary.

Our country has an illustrious history of vaccinations, and we shouldn't forget that. Over the decades we have successfully eradicated smallpox, diphtheria, polio, measles and mumps. They have effectively been wiped out. We were only able to get rid of these diseases because the American people accepted vaccines and were immunized in sufficient numbers to reach herd immunity. Vaccines were not an instrument of partisan politics, and not surrounded by so much disruptive information.

What we know is that 615,000 deaths and counting is unacceptable in a powerful and prosperous country. It is inconceivable that we continue to witness this kind of death and destruction. It is absolutely within our grasp to turn the tide and defeat this pandemic. But doing that requires eliminating partisan politics and deliberate misinformation from our national strategy. Our attitudes and behaviors must be guided by science and medicine. If that seems a daunting challenge at the moment, we must recognize that nothing short of that will work.

By Alan D. Blotcky

Alan D. Blotcky, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama, and a clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

MORE FROM Alan D. Blotcky

By Anthony Scaramucci

Anthony Scaramucci is a financier and past White House director of communications. He lives in Washington.

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Commentary Coronavirus Misinformation Pandemic Republicans Vaccines