Aug. 10, 2021 -- COVID-19 rates are surging again, and many Americans who’ve been vaccinated are turning their anger toward those who refuse to get the shot.
Outraged at vaccine-hesitant people, some are even calling for mandates requiring all Americans to get inoculated, arguing the holdouts are allowing the Delta coronavirus variant to gain traction and reverse the progress the U.S. was making against the virus.
Hyman has been following the difficult guidelines health experts have been urging from the beginning. He has been masking up, avoiding large gatherings, postponing travel, and he signed up to receive the vaccine as soon as it was available.
“We have been responsible, I did everything I was supposed to do,” says Hyman, 48, who didn’t visit his parents for 18 months to keep them safe. “Yet here we are, 16, 17 months later, and it feels like we’re in the exact same place we were last summer, and it’s all because some people refuse to do the responsible things they were told to do.”
James Simmons, a retired South Florida high school finance teacher, is also angered by the vaccine holdouts, citing new spikes in COVID-19 infections, hospitalization rates, and deaths across the country -- nearly all of which are among unvaccinated people.
“I can’t fathom the fact that people have seen over 600,000 Americans die from COVID, yet are resistant to a vaccine that provides direct protection for themselves and others,” says Simmons, 63, who received the shot early. “Their irresponsible decision is an affront to those of us who are vaccinated and still wear masks for the benefit of our society.”
Melissa Martin, an Atlanta resident who contracted a serious case of COVID-19 last September, says it is “perplexing and frustrating” that so many Americans are refusing the vaccine. She believes the anger so many vaccinated people feel is tied to fear.
“I believe at the core of this anger is a fear of losing the ones we love,” says Martin, 55, who has been vaccinated, as has her fiancé, Shane McGeehin. “I was very angry last year after contracting COVID. The experience of having COVID was negative physically, emotionally, and socially.”
She recalls arguing with friends and relatives who downplayed how severe the virus was and who still refuse vaccination, despite seeing how COVID affected her.
“I am trying to understand why they feel the way they do,” she says, “but I would describe the emotions I have now towards those who do not get the vaccine as frustration, confusion, and disbelief.”
Leana Wen, MD, an emergency medicine doctor and public health policy professor at George Washington University, says such sentiments are common and justified.
“I understand that feeling of frustration and anger, because it is the unvaccinated who are setting back the progress that we’ve made [because of] the many sacrifices that many people have undergone,” says Wen, author of the newly published book Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.
“I think it is appropriate for the vaccinated to feel like they’re being punished right now,” she says. “We as a country had the opportunity to beat this virus -- to return to pre-pandemic normal [life] and have our kids go back to school without worrying about coronavirus and our economy fully recovering. We came so close to achieving this, but we didn’t, and now COVID-19 is surging again. The vaccinated are having to pay the price for the choices that some have made to not end this pandemic.”
COVID Rising, Driving Anger
The rising anger among vaccinated Americans comes as health officials are reporting huge spikes in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Meanwhile, only about half of all Americans fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Per Aug. 6 estimates from the CDC, the nation is averaging more than 100,000 new cases every day -- the highest levels seen since February.
Southern states, with the lowest vaccination rates in the country, have been particularly hard-hit. Florida and Louisiana recently set 7-day records for new cases and hospitalizations, beating previous peaks last summer. Those two states, along with Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia, account for 41% of all new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the country, according to the CDC.
“It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks,” an angry Gov. Kay Ivey, Republican of Alabama, told reporters. “It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”
In response to the resurgence in cases, President Joe Biden has ordered new vaccine mandates for millions of federal workers.
This month, California started requiring health care professionals to be vaccinated, removing the option for unvaccinated employees to submit to regular testing.
New York City became the first in the country to require proof of vaccination for all workers and customers to enter restaurants, gyms, concert halls, movie theaters, and Broadway venues.
Nearly 60 major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association, have called for mandatory vaccination of all health care workers.
Meanwhile, many businesses are requiring workers to be vaccinated before returning to offices and other workplaces. Colleges across the country are mandating the shots for students and staff. And some states and cities are also returning to mask mandates, including Hawaii, Louisiana, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Experts say the 90 million unvaccinated Americans are most at risk from COVID and have helped the new Delta variant gain a foothold and spread, posing a risk of “breakthrough” cases even in vaccinated people.
Delta is more contagious and causes more severe disease than other known variants of the virus, according to the CDC. It is also more contagious than the viruses that cause MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, flu, and smallpox, the federal agency says.
Calls for Mandates Grow
With Delta helping to drive new spikes in COVID cases, some vaccinated Americans argue that the federal government should be taking a harder line with holdouts. Others have even advocated withholding government stimulus checks or tax credits from vaccine refusers and cutting federal funding to states that don’t meet vaccine targets.
Eric Jaffe, a creative writer and producer from Florida who is vaccinated, says he would like to see government agencies and private businesses do more to put pressure on unvaccinated Americans to get the shot.
“In the interest of public safety, I believe the government and private businesses need to [make] life difficult for the unvaccinated,” says Jaffe, 29, whose parents both contracted the virus but recovered. “They should not be allowed to dine at restaurants, ride public transportation, attend concerts, or broadly be in spaces with large concentrations of people without passing a COVID test at the door.
“They’ll stand in long lines and be inconvenienced at every turn, while vaccinated people get to fly through security, TSA PreCheck-style. The holdouts at [this] point are beyond convincing. The vaccinated should be able to return to a level of normalcy, and the unvaccinated should face restrictions. Any other dynamic puts the stress on citizens who did the right thing.”
Elif Akcali, 49, who teaches engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville, worries that the rights of people who refuse the vaccine are being put ahead of those of vaccinated people. She’s also concerned for people who face greater COVID risks, including health care workers and children too young to be inoculated.
“Each infection is an opportunity for the virus to evolve into a stronger version in itself,” says Akcali, who felt such a sense of relief when she received her vaccination that she teared up. “Each hospitalization is an unnecessary burden to health care workers and the system. Each death brings heartbreak to someone in their circle.”
Ed Berliner, an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and Florida-based media specialist, blames social media for spreading misinformation that has taken root with unvaccinated Americans.
“When America rallied together to combat polio, there were two things we didn’t have. One was a lack of the sewer-dwelling, troll-infested social media, which has become the main source of news for the less intelligent and arrogant,” says Berliner, CEO of Entourage Media LLC and host of The Man in the Arena, a talk show. “Second, children were dying across the country, and that made people sit up and take notice.”
Berliner, who knows two people who’ve died from COVID and received the vaccine early, also believes too many political leaders are still fueling falsehoods that are giving unvaccinated Americans a license to refuse the shot.
“We are also here because governments and officials spend too little time being brutally honest, choosing instead to dance around issues with soft words,” he says. “The first words out of their mouths should have been: ‘What we are doing is trying to save lives. Help us save your life and that of everyone else.’ Would it have made a difference? We will never know.”
Shon Neyland, senior pastor at the Highland Christian Center church in Portland, OR, says vaccine tensions have divided his congregation, with about half refusing the shot by his estimation. But he says it’s important to understand why some are making that choice, rather than rage at them and hammer home the benefits of the shot.
Many vaccine holdouts don’t trust the government or medical establishment or have bought into political arguments against the shot, he says. Some conservative evangelicals are also swayed by spiritual beliefs that COVID-19 is a sign of “biblical end-times prophesies” and the vaccine is “the mark of the beast,” he says.
But he has tried to counter those beliefs and biases, arguing they are false and unfounded, urging members of his church to get the vaccine, and partnering with local health officials to run clinics to deliver it.
“I gently try to show them that the vaccine is for our own good and, in fact, is a blessing from God, and it’s up to us to accept the blessing [so] we can get back to somewhat of normalcy,” says Neyland, author of The Courage to Stand: A New America.
“I also believe that to get a vaccine this quick, this was nothing short of a miracle to turn the tide so quickly. Now, for us to resist, it would cause us to continue to suffer and lose lives. And you can’t turn away from the lives that have already been lost.”
Hyman, the Ohio attorney, fears we may not have seen the worst of the pandemic and that the Delta variant won’t be the last or most virulent mutation to emerge.
“The number of unvaccinated people is allowing this virus to continue circulating in the community,” he notes. “And while I have a tremendous amount of confidence that the vaccine protects me now from Delta, I have less confidence that it’s going to protect me from whatever [variant] comes next.
“So, I have a tremendous amount of concern for my own health and safety and welfare, and that of the people that I love. But I’m also concerned about what’s it going to do to businesses [and] the economy. Are we going to have more shutdowns if cases continue trending up? I’m very concerned as to what this could do [to] the country.”