When the United States first authorized the three COVID vaccines, vaccination centers could hardly keep up with public demand. However, demand peaked in March. Since then, steadily fewer Americans have gotten the vaccine. At the moment, only about 50 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. Approximately more than 20 percent of Americans say they are unlikely to get vaccinated according to an Axios-Ipsos poll. The same study found that the new surge in the Delta variant only slightly increased willingness amongst Americans to get the vaccine. In short, the rate of Americans interested in getting vaccinated is falling short of reaching herd immunity.
Compounding the issue, there is a wide divide amongst American communities regarding vaccination rates. States in the American South and central regions fall drastically short compared to other states. Therefore, states within these regions are dealing with massive COVID surges, like Florida and Louisiana. Almost all deaths and hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated. Therefore, the United States faces many localized outbreaks and deaths attributed directly to low vaccine rates. Among the vaccinated, 79% percent blame the unvaccinated for worsening the pandemic according to the same Axios-Ipsos poll. Therefore, current vaccination rates are both worsening the pandemic and creating social enmity.
Additionally, government officials and political figures have contributed to recent COVID spikes. Conservative politicians and media continue to question public health officials and criticize mitigation efforts. For instance, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis publicly supports vaccination efforts but continues to undermine public health measures within his state. For instance, he denounced any vaccine passport program for his state, ruled out further lockdowns, and harassed jurisdictions that encourage people to continue to wear masks. Moreover, one of his recent executive orders threatens to pull funding from schools that implement mask mandates, and his campaign website sells merchandise with anti-science sentiment. In total, Florida has seen over 45,000 new cases of COVID between July 15th and July 21st because of these policies. Political leaders on the right have exacerbated the crisis through policies and rhetoric that worsen the pandemic and openly question public health recommendations. This phenomenon has undeniably deepened vaccine skepticism.
The public policy response from both ends of the political spectrum has failed to properly address the pandemic. For example, multiple Republican-run states, including Montana, Arizona, and Arkansas, have enacted laws preventing certain employers from mandating vaccines. Most of these bills only prevent local and state governments from mandating vaccines amongst their employees, while Montana prevents all employers from mandating vaccines. Even though most of these laws do not prevent private employers from mandating COVID vaccinations, they establish norms that discourage vaccine mandates in the workplace.
Beyond vaccine mandate bans, other states have failed to adhere to public health guidance. As previously mentioned, some state governments have banned mask mandates, which has enhanced community spread. Even though masks are a temporary solution to slowing the spread of COVID, these policies exacerbate the pandemic and openly question national public health recommendations. This skeptical leadership ultimately undermines all public health efforts, including the long-term solution to the pandemic: vaccination. This politicization of public health could also hamper future vaccination efforts unrelated to COVID-19. If the public regards public health science as political rather than non-partisan, it could hamper future disease prevention efforts and trust in medical professionals, causing a further toll on human life long into the future. In total, Republican lawmakers need to drop their anti-science rhetoric and support the recommendations of health officials.
Political leaders on the left have also failed to implement successful policies that encourage vaccination. The Biden administration and various local governments tried to motivate unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated using lottery systems and monetary rewards, but vaccination rates have stalled regardless. Instead, these officials must implement policies at various governmental levels that directly address vaccine skepticism. Although many unvaccinated people oppose getting the vaccine under current circumstances, about half according to Ipsos could be encouraged to get vaccinated through measures like employer-mandated vaccination or a raise. Further, education campaigns that explain clinical trials and the emergency use authorization process could also help reduce skepticism. In short, political leaders on the left must open new public policy avenues to increase vaccination rates.
In all, vaccinations are the only suitable way to end the pandemic. Efficacy studies have proven that vaccines work to halt community spread and save lives. If the U.S. hopes to stop the pandemic, its policies must successfully promote vaccination amongst the vast majority of people. However, the U.S. has failed at achieving this goal. Defeating the pandemic is a worldwide project, and the United States must better mobilize its extensive resources to prevent more needless deaths.
Moving forward, the United States needs to implement private and public sector policies to encourage those holding out on the vaccine to get inoculated. Regarding the private sector, employers must first provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated. Not all vaccine holdouts are skeptics, rather they just don’t have time to get vaccinated. As a result, the United States government should mandate that employers provide paid leave for workers to get vaccinated and allow employees to take paid time off for any potential side effects. According to Vox, some people have avoided getting vaccinated because they are afraid of how it might affect their work performance or simply don’t have time. Since the U.S. already covers the cost of COVID vaccination paid leave, the federal government should expand these subsidies to cover this new paid leave mandate. This policy would help ease fears. Beyond paid leave, employers should also encourage employee vaccination through paid incentives such as bonuses or raises.
Once the above workplace measures are implemented, private sector employers should require COVID vaccinations, with medical and religious exceptions. The Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have ruled that mandated workplace COVID vaccinations are permissible, so employers would not face legal punishment for mandating vaccinations. By mandating vaccines, private sector employers could make their workplaces safer and help the U.S. return to normalcy.
On the public sector side of vaccinating more Americans, the FDA must fully approve the vaccine as fast as possible. Many vaccine skeptics refuse to get vaccinated until it has full FDA approval. During an interview with ABC News, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins said he expects the FDA to fully approve the vaccine in the next month. To reduce deaths, the FDA must fully approve the vaccine by that time or earlier. It’s extremely salient that the FDA meets this expected date since many Americans may choose to get vaccinated as soon as it receives full approval.
In addition to full approval, the FDA, CDC, and NIH must expand their vaccine education campaigns. Using targeted media advertising will help inform vaccine skeptics and dispel harmful misinformation regarding emergency use authorization. These federal agencies should air pro-vaccine information on conservative media outlets and in vaccine skeptic social media circles to combat disinformation.
On the state level, the United States federal government must outlaw state-level vaccine and mask mandate bans. Throughout the pandemic, state governments have hampered the country’s public health response with disjointed policies. Local governments and employers shouldn’t have their hands tied by anti-science and restrictive state policy. Therefore, the federal government must step in to ensure state legislatures and governors don’t hamper progress towards the vaccination threshold.
Within government departments on all levels, public officials should mandate vaccinations as soon as possible. Instead of providing alternatives through regular testing, government workplaces should maximize vaccination by mandating vaccination. Similar to private employers, they should also provide paid leave for vaccinations. In addition, by fully vaccinating government employees, public employers can operate safer government services and create workplace vaccination models replicable for private employers.
In educational spaces, all K-12 schools and universities should also mandate vaccines for educators and eligible students. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has received FDA emergency use approval for 12-year-olds and up. Therefore, educational spaces should mandate vaccination to reduce case counts and return to normal operation. Schools provide essential services for minors and students, so mandating inoculation will ensure these institutions can provide these services as soon as possible and improve educational quality.
If the above policies are unable to encourage a critical mass of vaccinations, then the U.S. government should create an environment where it’s hard to not be vaccinated. For instance, the United States should implement “green passes.” In Israel, citizens need proof of vaccination to access everyday activities and public places like restaurants and movie theaters. The U.S. federal government should replicate this policy and use green passes to access everyday services. Once this is implemented, unvaccinated people will be peer pressured into getting vaccinated so they can also access everyday services. Similarly, schools, employers, and government agencies should make it harder for Americans (but not impossible) to claim a medical or religious exception to motivate potential vaccine holdouts to get vaccinated. Through these policies, the United States can more effectively and peacefully encourage vaccines and prevent countless more deaths.