With the Department of Veterans Affairs announcing this week that COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory for most VA health workers, a new chapter in America has opened. That announcement, the first by a federal agency, coupled with a letter signed by medical groups representing millions of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care workers also calling for mandatory vaccination of all U.S. health personnel is a sea change.
But now we have to go one step further. We must create “safe havens” for vaccinated Americans.
Traditionally, we think of one particular type of “safe haven,” the “sanctuary city,” as a place designed to shield immigrants from the long arm of federal enforcement. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a “safe haven” is a place that chooses to keep local resources available to local residents as a way of protecting people in need of protection while awaiting action on their cases.
But why not use the concept of protection for those afraid of contracting COVID-19?
A “safe haven” for the unvaccinated Americans could be as big as a county or district, or as small as a school or religious organization. Think of it as a bubble, like the Olympic village outside Tokyo, where testing, tracing, quarantining and health and safety protocols can be carried out.
What everyone inside the “safe haven” shares is the view that vaccinations remain the key to safety. There are rules that must be followed and procedures to guide everyone to a positive outcome.
As with any community, there must be exceptions. There are some individuals who cannot get the vaccine right now. Children, for example, would be kept in the safe haven until clinical trials ensure that it is appropriate to vaccinate them. And anti-vaccination advocates who have changed their tune in light of COVID-19 family losses and now embrace vaccinations would be welcomed into the safe haven as long as they have proof of vaccination.
Left outside the safe haven would be all those who resist vaccination with no good reason — and thus are in danger of spreading the virus to others. The governor or Alabama alluded to this last week when she commented that “it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks.”
Alabama has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Only 39.6 percent of its residents 12 and older have been fully vaccinated, compared to the 48.8 percent of Americans nationally. The unvaccinated people are enduring the most severe effects of the virus — accounting for more than 95 percent of the current COVID-related hospitalizations. But our medical resources are now stretched thin.
The notion of a special place for vaccinated residents may strike some as divisive. But truth be told, when there is an emergency, you have to act. Public health challenges demand creative solutions.
If we put some parameters around who can enter certain buildings and regions, the balance of power shifts to vaccinated Americans and those who have taken the necessary steps to be safe from the virus. They can enter the safe haven at will.
We all deserve health, and if someone is knowingly and voluntarily refusing protection from COVID-19, they are creating an unsafe environment — putting the lives of nurses, doctors, EMT responders and children at risk of catching their viral load.
As the number of infections continues to rise to 51,000 cases per day, on average, more than four times the rate of a month ago, the vast majority are people who have chosen not to get one of the available vaccines and have become a public health risk. Because of them, we may have to abide by new mask mandates, face growing nursing shortages and examine renewed virtual learning for children. It is because half our nation remains vulnerable to getting sick that Dr. Jerome AdamsJerome AdamsFormer surgeon general: 'Unconscionable' for states to ban mask mandates Former Trump surgeon general says politicians are 'taking tools' away from public health offices Pence urges young conservatives to get COVID-19 vaccine MORE, who served as surgeon general in the Trump administration, had a dire warning this weekend. “More mitigation is coming,” which could include harsh measure to bring COVID under control.
We all should have the opportunity to seek shelter from life’s storms. And though many will find this solution extreme, when we are talking about a national health crisis, inaction is inexcusable.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.