We need to stop kowtowing to COVID-19 refuseniks

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When it comes to the anti-vaxxers, I’m in Emmanuel Macron’s corner. The French president is so frustrated with these “irresponsible” refuseniks that he just wants to “piss them off” by making their lives so complicated they’d prefer to get vaccinated.

I am sick of hearing about the rights of — or alleged abuses suffered by — the 35 million Americans who haven’t gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. I’m more concerned about the dangers they pose to the more than 200 million who have been vaccinated.

Yet cheap-seat politicians and some media are full of sympathy for the unvaccinated, threatened — supposedly — by the heavy hand of government.

Four states — Florida, Tennessee, Iowa and Kansas — have passed laws providing unemployment benefits to those fired for refusing to be vaccinated or tested. Most of these politicians usually rail against lax unemployment benefits, and be certain: There’s no rush for a similar waiver for employees who refuse drug testing.

In Georgia, which faces a surge of omicron cases, Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who has a tough primary challenge, criticized the reimposition of mask mandates in Atlanta, vowing “not to divide the vaccinated from the unvaccinated or the masked from the unmasked.” Does he see no difference between those who act responsibly and save lives versus those who don’t and risk lives?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), always a contender for the lead bottom feeder on this score, is suing the federal government over requiring vaccines for National Guardsman. He’s also sending guardsman down to the border to check illegal immigrants, who critics say are COVID-19 spreaders. Square that, governor.

A couple of simple facts. The Peterson-Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that over the course of six months last year, “preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations among unvaccinated adults” cost $13.8 billion.

In a corollary, the Commonwealth Fund estimates that the vaccination program prevented 1.1 million deaths and 10.3 million hospitalizations.

The know-nothings still rail against any mandates, ignoring that 50 states require a measles vaccine for kindergarteners. Some protest that flu shots aren’t mandatory; more than 830,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, twenty-fold more than die in a bad flu season.

A critical test is how the Supreme Court decides two cases it heard on Friday, challenges from anti-vaxxers to President Biden’s COVID-19 initiatives: one that larger companies require vaccinations or testing for in-person employees and the other that all staffers at facilities with Medicare or Medicaid patients be vaccinated.

On the first, the question is whether the government has the authority to protect the health and safety of workers. There are a few legitimate vaccine exemptions for religious or medical reasons; there are not for testing.

On health care workers, a brief filed to the court by leading medical colleges and health care experts notes that “all evidence shows the vaccination significantly reduces the likelihood that health care workers will transmit COvID-19 and infect patients.” Thus, it says, the rules “should not be subject to second-guessing by an unelected federal judiciary which lacks the background, competence and expertise.”

Given the crisis, decisions are expected imminently. Judging by the oral arguments, the court appears likely to uphold the requirement that all health care workers in these facilities be vaccinated.

But the Republican conservative majority on the court raised more objections to the vaccine-or-testing requirements for larger companies. Justice Elena Kagan, one of the liberals, noted that “more and more people are dying every day” of COVID-19 and said there is no other effective prevention. But the conservatives, consistently antagonistic to the federal administrative state, argued it could be handled by the states, a number of which have actually banned any vaccine and masking requirements.

We should not lose sight of the fact that while the virus would still be here, it wouldn’t have been as bad without the malfeasance of former President Trump, despite some revisionism that he is unfairly maligned.

The defeated former president deserves credit for the rapid development of highly effective vaccines during his administration. But he failed everywhere else, downplaying the severity of the virus when he knew otherwise, peddling bizarre cures such as ingesting disinfectants and turning to crackpot advisers to counter science experts. A House committee report last year found Trump deliberately undermined public health and infectious disease experts and silenced officials in order to promote his own political agenda.

Biden has done a better job, strongly promoting vaccinations and listening to the scientists. There have been mistakes. They dropped the ball on rapid tests, which now are in inadequate supply as omicron rages, and one wonders, ‘Where’s the secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, during a health care crisis?’

My guess is they will adapt and pay attention to the call a few days ago by prominent medical experts to change strategy and deal with a “new normal” that the virus isn’t going away.

However, continuing to pay any homage to the destructive behavior of anti-vaxxers will make that challenge even harder.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags anti-vaccination movement Anti-vaxxers Brian Kemp COVID-19 misinformation COVID-19 vaccination in the United States Donald Trump Elena Kagan Emmanuel Macron Florida Georgia Greg Abbott Health Joe Biden Medicine Republican Party SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant Texas Vaccine hesitancy Xavier Becerra

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