//The Year of Living Contagiously

The Year of Living Contagiously

By Dave Fountinelle | dave@fresnoflyer.com

Shift Happens. That was the title of the April 2020 issue of The Fresno Flyer. It had been just over 30 days since COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in the United States. California had been under total lockdown and closure of all non-essential businesses for roughly three weeks. Everyone was scrambling to adjust to unprecedented restrictions on everything from travel to shopping. People were scared, anxious, uncertain, and looking for answers and guidance from our leadership in Washington DC and Sacramento.

Unfortunately, along with the pandemic came a campaign of inconsistent, confusing, and often dishonest information from the White House that ran contrary to CDC guidelines and recommendations. The politicization of the pandemic created a schism between federal and state governments that split along party lines. In the wake of the confusion caused by conflicting information, conspiracy theories were rampant. Wild, unsubstantiated stories about everything from sinister plots to implant mind-control devices, microchips to track our every move, DNA-altering chemicals, or even lethal toxins for population control polluted the public discourse, sewed fear and distrust among a disturbingly large segment of the population. Policy decisions about whether to enact federal mandates for masks, social distancing, and sheltering in place should have been guided by science instead of being made based on political advantages. Instead of acting in the people’s best interests, the White House appeared to be more concerned with winning re-election. What had begun as a simple plea for the people to give “two weeks to flatten the curve” snowballed into the worst public health crisis since the Spanish Flu.

In California, enforcement of regulations was inconsistent from county to county. Some counties declared an outright refusal to enforce mask and social distancing restrictions. Compounding the situation were a series of incidents involving both Governor Gavin Newsom and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, each recorded violating protocols. The apparent hypocrisy created not just lousy PR but fueled a growing backlash against the restrictive ordinances. And all the while, infection rates, and death tolls climbed higher and faster by the day.

A year ago today, there were roughly 25,000 COVID-19 cases reported nationwide. The death toll was in the low hundreds. Today, there have been nearly 31 million cases reported and over 550,000 deaths. In California, the CDC reports that 3.68 million cases have been reported so far, with just under 60,000 dead.

However, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel finally. After taking office in January, President Biden announced an aggressive vaccine distribution strategy that saw over 100 million doses delivered under 60 days. From a one-day high of over 250,000 new cases reported in January of this year, the number has dropped to just over 53,000 at the end of March. There is still a long road ahead, and experts warn that a “fourth wave” spike in new cases could be coming as many states have begun lifting all Covid restrictions in opposition to CDC guidelines. Still, a roughly 80% reduction in new cases in 3 months is nothing short of incredible.

These numbers are only expected to improve as vaccine distribution expands beyond the elderly, immune-compromised, and essential workers to include more and more of the general population. At this point, the biggest obstacle to vaccine distribution isn’t meeting eligibility requirements; it’s overcoming the massive disinformation campaign fueled by conspiracy theorists on social media.

Approximately 77% of the population now says they have or intend to receive one of the COVID vaccines currently available. However, those numbers skew along party lines. Over 83% of registered Democrats say they have or will get the vaccine, while only 56% of Republicans say the same. Opinions also vary along racial and gender lines. 61% of Black Americans say they have or will get the vaccine, and 66% of women say the same. The challenge for healthcare workers now is figuring out how to overcome these social, political, and cultural biases. Doing so would ensure that enough of the population is vaccinated to get the virus under control and finally bring the pandemic to an end.

The factors that influence a particular group or individual’s decision to get the vaccine are complex and varied. People who trust in science are 75% more likely to get the vaccine than people who don’t. Another factor is how an individual views their responsibility to the health of their community. People who felt an obligation to do what was in the best interests of their friends, family, and neighbors were 60% more likely to get the vaccine than those who felt no obligation to protect anyone’s health besides their own. Likewise, individuals who get annual flu shots were 40% more likely to get vaccinated.

So why are so many people still refusing the vaccine? According to the Pew Research Center, over 30% of Americans have said they refuse to get vaccinated against COVID. The number one reason given is concern about potential side effects. There have been some well-documented side-effects from the vaccines, most notably with the ones produced by Moderna. Namely, a condition commonly known as “Moderna arm” refers to painful redness and swelling around the injection site typically caused by administering the shot outside the recommended spot on the upper arm. Many recipients have also reported flu-like symptoms, particularly after receiving the second dose. While undoubtedly annoying and inconvenient, these side effects pale in comparison to the immediate and long-term damage done by COVID-19. Still, for many who cite this concern as the reason to refuse vaccination, the potential of contracting COVID is still a safer bet than the perceived consequences of getting the shots.

A full two-thirds of Americans refusing to get the vaccine attributes their decision to a belief that the vaccines were developed too quickly, without enough testing to ensure that they’re both safe and effective enough for use. Much like the fear caused by overly sensationalized side effects “horror stories,” social media has driven much of the misinformation that has undermined public trust in the vaccine’s development and testing process. Scores of dubious “experts” have inundated the public with overly oversimplified, easily digestible YouTube videos asserting unverified or patently false claims about the vaccine – how it was developed and how it works. To their credit, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have dedicated considerable resources to identifying and removing false and misleading information about COVID-19 from their platforms. However, this policing of disinformation is seen as proof of a vast, deep-state conspiracy to hide the truth to the conspiracy theorists. And it’s this stark disconnect from reality that has created the biggest obstacle in educating the public about the vaccine.

However, the decision to get vaccinated or not isn’t determined only by whether someone trusts in science or conspiracies. Approximately 42% of Americans say they won’t get the vaccine because they don’t think they need to. These individuals report that they never get flu vaccines and rarely if ever, get sick. Their overall outlook on their health is that they have a robust enough immune system that, even if they did get COVID, it wouldn’t be any worse than a nasty cold. Obviously, this doesn’t consider the fact that these individuals would still be carriers of the virus, and generally speaking, not likely to maintain strict adherence to CDC guidelines to prevent spreading it to others. One common factor among nearly all Americans who have stated a refusal to get vaccinated is a disdain for following mask and social distancing recommendations. 

Ultimately, when it comes to addressing the problem of convincing the 30% of Americans who say they won’t get vaccinated to change their minds, polling data seems to indicate that our pocketbooks will most likely provide the solution. 81% of the country agrees that the COVID pandemic is the greatest threat facing our economy. They see the direct connection between the efforts to vaccinate the public and a return to “business as usual.” For many Americans, fear of falling deeper into recession and economic instability is a more significant motivator to get vaccinated than conspiracy tales are a deterrent. Unsurprisingly, these numbers are also sharply divided along party lines. Two-thirds of Democrats strongly believe that widespread vaccine distribution will have a significant positive impact on the economy. At the same time, only one-third of Republicans share the same sentiment. 

Still, the efforts to distribute enough vaccines for every American continues at a record-breaking pace. It may likely be irrelevant that 30% of the population won’t get vaccinated once the other 70% have received theirs. The numbers have already fallen significantly and will continue to do so with every newly vaccinated person. However, the only way to ensure that every precaution has been taken to prevent contracting COVID is to get vaccinated. Here in California, residents can check their eligibility, find a location, and make an appointment to get vaccinated at myturn.ca.gov. Residents can also check for announcements from local pharmacies, which often have surplus vaccines that must be administered before they expire. These are announced as “first come, first served” offers. Additionally, starting April 15th, everyone in California over the age of 16 will be eligible to receive the vaccine.       

So much has happened over the last 12 months. The year-long pandemic has permanently changed the landscape of our country. Economically, politically, and socially, America and the rest of the world have been radically reshaped by Covid, for better or worse. History will record the actions and inactions that brought us to where we are today. It remains to be seen how society will move forward from here.

California residents can visit https://myturn.ca.gov/ to see if you are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, find the nearest vaccination location, and make an appointment. Please follow all CDC guidelines, wear a mask, social distance, and wash your hands. Together, we can all do our part to make sure we’re talking about something entirely different in April 2022.