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Republicans’ mantra should have been ‘Stop the Spread’

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During the surge of the COVID-19 Delta variant this summer, the states with the worst per capita fatalities were all red: Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas.

These days, the states with highest number of Coronavirus cases per 100,000 population remain almost entirely red: Tennessee, North Dakota, South Carolina, Florida, South Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alaska, Alabama, Rhode Island, Wyoming, Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, Iowa, Indiana, and Kansas.

Ditto states with the largest COVID-19 death rates during the previous week: West Virginia, Alabama, Idaho, Wyoming, Florida, Texas, South Carolina Georgia, and Kentucky.

States with the lowest percentage of their citizens fully vaccinated are red: West Virginia, Idaho, Wyoming, Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, Montana, Ohio, Alaska, North Carolina, Nevada, and Arizona.

States with the highest percentage of their citizens fully vaccinated are blue: Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, New Mexico, Washington, New Hampshire, Oregon, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Colorado, California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and Delaware. 

These statistics make a compelling case that instead of “Stop the Steal,” the mantra of GOP officeholders should have been “Stop the Spread.” 

To be sure, Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts have been visible and vocal supporters of vaccination, mask wearing, social distancing and other public health measures that are effective in slowing the transmission of COVID-19.

But they were — and are — outliers in a political party that bears considerable responsibility for the dismal record of the United States during the pandemic.

A few Republicans know what’s needed, but — it appears — lack the political courage to say so in public.

As recently as July, almost half of the Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives refused to say whether they had been vaccinated. Greeted with catcalls and boos when he advised South Carolina Republicans to “think about” getting vaccinated, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) backtracked: “I didn’t tell you to get it,” Graham said. 

As their rationale for opposing public health directives, too many Republican politicians offer simplistic demands for “freedom of choice,” ignoring Supreme Court decisions that state vaccination mandates are constitutional; requirements in all 50 states that school children be vaccinated (including measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria, hepatitis, influenza, and other diseases; the administration of 17 vaccines to U.S. military personnel; laws penalizing citizens for failing to wear seat belts, drinking intoxicants or texting while driving, and dumping toxic materials into reservoirs.

Although South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) acknowledged that the Delta variant posed a serious risk to public health, she declared that government officials who issued mitigation mandates to combat it “broke their oath to the Constitution.” In a video, Idaho’s Lt. Gov. Janice McGeichan, seated in a van adorned with an American flag, slowly raises a handgun, while holding a Bible in her left hand, and asserts that emergency public health measures violate Americans’ right to “defend life and liberty, acquire, possess, and protect property, and pursue happiness and safety.”

Worst of all, a substantial number of Republican officeholders have mocked public health measures or spread misinformation and lies about them.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), whose congressional district has the lowest vaccination rate in the state, called the men and women in the federal government’s door-to-door vaccine outreach program, “Needle Nazis.” Last month Boebert tweeted, “I woke up with a headache this morning. I took some Tylenol. Now if everyone else could take some Tylenol too so mine would start working, that would be great.”

Asked whether he had been vaccinated, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) replied, “I think we should be talking more about freeing Britney [Spears].” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) asserted that vaccines are “experimental” and associated with “death and other ill-effects.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s executive order prohibiting public schools from mandating masks claimed that children “do not play a significant role in spreading the virus” and that face coverings “could inhibit breathing, lead to the collection of dangerous impurities, including bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other contaminants.”

Although unvaccinated people in Wisconsin are four times more likely to be infected with the Coronavirus than those who have been vaccinated and nine times as likely to be hospitalized with the disease, Sen. Ron Johnson (who has touted treatments for COVID-19 not authorized by the FDA, including hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin) opined, “This does not look like a pandemic of the unvaxxed, this looks like vaccine failure.”

Pandemic politics in the United States need not have unfolded in this way.

If Republicans, starting with President Trump, had heeded warnings about the Coronavirus in January 2020, informed Americans about the danger, worked with governors in red and blue states to implement mitigation strategies in hot spots, taken credit for developing vaccines in an astonishingly short time and provided full-throated endorsements of them as safe and effective, the GOP would almost certainly have retained control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2020.

And tens of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of COVID-19 victims would still be alive.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags anti-mask anti-science Anti-vaccine movement covid deaths covid-19 death rates COVID-19 misinformation COVID-19 pandemic in the United States covid-19 vaccination rate Donald Trump Health Kristi Noem Lauren Boebert Lindsey Graham Matt Gaetz Medicine Mo Brooks Republican Party Ron DeSantis Ron Johnson United States responses to the COVID-19 pandemic Vaccine hesitancy

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