Public/Global Health

Pandemic frustrations zero in on unvaccinated Americans

The growing frustration with the ongoing pandemic is boiling over, with all eyes turned to the unvaccinated as the key to getting through the COVID-19 crisis.

As cases approach winter levels, the U.S. has been left to decide how to deal with and treat the millions who still haven’t received their shots, months after they became widely available.

In response, some have resorted to mocking and joking about the unvaccinated, an approach public health and psychology experts say is unlikely to change the minds of both hard-line activists or the vaccine hesitant.

Experts support stricter actions like mandates to boost the vaccination rate and protect the public, although several also encourage patience while acknowledging the increased irritation. President Biden and others, however, have indicated their “patience is wearing thin.”

Gary Bennett, a professor of psychology, neuroscience, global health and medicine at Duke University, said the “national shift towards much more frustration” directed at unvaccinated individuals is likely linked to the highly transmissible delta variant that has increased hospitalizations across the country and led to more breakthrough cases.

“That seems to be a pretty significant driver of this most recent kind of concern for that large number of people who remain unvaccinated,” Bennett said.

Nearly five months after all adults became eligible to get vaccinated, approximately a quarter of American adults, or 62.5 million, have not received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite more than half of the total population having received at least one dose by the end of May, the vaccination rate has not been high enough to curb COVID-19. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have climbed in recent months, reaching seven-day daily averages of more than 152,000 new cases, about 100,000 admissions and 1,800 fatalities.

“It’s clear that there’s a lot of human wood out there for this coronavirus forest fire to burn,” said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Federal public health officials have repeatedly labeled the surge a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” as a vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths occur among those who never got a shot.

But the vaccinated population has been impacted too, as breakthrough cases rise and health officials recommend masks for everyone, regardless of their vaccination status.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, called the vaccinated population’s exasperation “understandable,” as they “did everything right” and got their shots.

“I think a lot of these individuals are wondering — ‘Why are we being punished because of the decisions of others?’ ” she said. “ ‘Why are the vaccinated paying the price for the unvaccinated?’ ”

Google trends show a spike in searches for the term “the unvaccinated” in early August, after having previously been described as “vaccine hesitant,” said Drew Westen, a professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University.

That shift came about 10 days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the fully vaccinated people mask up again while indoors in high-risk areas.

“That has become the term,” Westen said. “Now, they’re an ‘it.’ They’re a ‘them.’ They’re an ‘other.’ … To 70 percent of Americans now, they are the problem.”

Experts agreed that the unvaccinated population is not a homogenous faction, with two main subgroups — those who still have questions and those who say they will never get the shot — leaving the vaccinated to juggle how to interact with them.

Some have turned to humor, with late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel suggesting that the unvaccinated should be given a lower priority for intensive care unit beds than those who got their shots.

But Osterholm warned that COVID-19 spreading among unvaccinated people is “not anything to joke about.”

“This is life and death,” he said. “That’s not funny. So I think that we surely can make very strong statements about it, but I don’t think that humor has anything to do with it and shouldn’t be used.”

In the same vein, The Dallas Morning News editorial board last week advised readers who mocked anti-vaccine and anti-mask activists killed by COVID-19 to “resist the impulse to scream ‘I told you so!’ ”

“Mocking vaccine skeptics who’ve been fed misinformation won’t convince people on the fence to get vaccinated,” the editorial board wrote. “Our inclination should be to show others that we care about them, not to win an argument.”

Noel Brewer, a professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina, said the approach taken by some vaccinated individuals can have unintended consequences.

“If going into a conversation about vaccination you were already angry, you will have no impact and maybe make things worse,” he said. “If you can reasonably say that you’re starting from a point of interest and concern without anger, you might actually be able to have an impact.”

He said having multiple 5- to 10-minute discussions over one or two months increases the odds of persuading someone to get vaccinated.

As a whole, the unvaccinated population “disproportionately” consists of those who identify as Republican, younger adults, people with lower levels of education, people in rural areas and people without health insurance, said Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, citing the organization’s most recent survey from July.

The national vaccination rate has ticked up slightly since then as the delta strain wreaked havoc across the country, but the number of new shots hasn’t been enough to turn the tide of the pandemic.

For that reason, public health experts are backing vaccine mandates and other requirements as the next effort to try to persuade the unvaccinated to get the jab.

“I think we want to maintain a stance where there’s some empathy informing our decision-making, but in that context, the best possibilities I think we have for a broad-based change here are really policies that require vaccination,” Bennett of Duke University said. “I think we’re nearing a point at which I think that’s going to be necessary.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine Delta variant Jimmy Kimmel Joe Biden Pandemic unvaccinated Americans

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