The Biggest Remaining Challenge in Stopping the Coronavirus

These miscreants and freeloaders are holding up the rest of us.

By WILLIAM SALETAN | Slate | May 3, 2021

On April 15, at a hearing on the coronavirus pandemic, Rep. Jim Jordan harangued Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Jordan, an outspoken critic of mask mandates, demanded to know when Americans would “get their liberties back and be able to move on with their lives.” Fauci explained that the answer depended on progress in vaccination, which in turn depended on how many people were willing to roll up their sleeves. Jordan, who had passed up an invitation to get vaccinated in December—and had reiterated in March that he was in “no hurry” to get his shot—ignored Fauci’s point and went on with his tirade.

This is the paradox we’re dealing with as we try to get control of the virus: People who won’t get vaccinated—in many cases, the same people who defy mask orders and other public health measures—are holding us back from resuming normal life. Many of them are deliberate freeloaders. They’re counting on the rest of us to suppress the pandemic—and thereby protect them—by getting vaccinated, while they refuse to do the same.

The best insight into these people comes from the Harris Poll’s COVID-19 Tracker, which publishes weekly updates on COVID-related attitudes and behavior, broken down by vaccination status and willingness to get vaccinated. It shows a clear overlap between people who refuse vaccination and people who disregard public health rules. In late February, the poll asked respondents whether, in the preceding month, they had become more or less likely to wear masks in public, stay 6 feet away from others, or limit travel. You’d expect that people who had been vaccinated during that time might have relaxed their habits accordingly, while unvaccinated people, being at risk, would have remained more vigilant. The poll found just the opposite. Vaccine refusers—people who said “I will not get a COVID-19 vaccine”—were three times as likely as vaccinated people to say that they had become more lax about masks and distance. They were nearly twice as likely to say they had slacked about avoiding crowds and limiting travel.

In March, the poll asked people whether, while traveling since December, they had worn masks in public places or had stayed 6 feet away from strangers. Again, vaccine refusers were less likely than other respondents, including people who were already vaccinated, to say they had followed these rules. They were more likely to say they “did not take any precautions.” And they were twice as likely as other respondents (37 percent, compared with 19 percent) to say they hadn’t taken any precautions after travel, such as avoiding “crowded indoor places” or choosing not to “gather with friends or family who are at higher risk of serious COVID-19 illness.”

A week ago, a Harris poll asked people how often they “wear a mask while outdoors and not in a crowded public place.” Twenty-five percent of vaccinated people said they never did. That makes sense, since they don’t need to, according to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But among vaccine refusers, who are many times more likely to catch and spread the virus, 35 percent said they never wore masks in such outdoor conditions. Many vaccine refusers also dismissed indoor mask rules. And 43 percent of vaccine refusers, compared with 24 percent of all respondents, insisted that it’s now “safe to gather indoors with people regardless of their vaccination status,” because “we’ve socially distanced long enough,” and “I’ve stopped worrying about safety.”

Vaccine refusers are much more likely than everyone else to say they’re comfortable socializing with strangers at bars, going to indoor parties, going to big concerts, going into stores and gyms without masks, and skipping quarantine after being exposed to the virus. In March, half of them said they were comfortable “gathering indoors with friends/family members who are at high risk for severe COVID illness, without wearing a mask.” That’s twice as high as the percentage of vaccinated people who felt comfortable taking that risk. In mid-April, when a Harris poll asked about travel guidance from public health officials, 25 percent of vaccine refusers selected this answer: “It doesn’t matter what the CDC says, I am going to do my own thing.” Other pollsters don’t consistently publish data on vaccine refusers, as the Harris Poll does, but when they examine the holdouts, they find the same pattern.

Why do so many people who hate COVID restrictions—people who don’t want to wear masks or maintain social distance—refuse to participate in a vaccination program that could end these restrictions? The answer, in most cases, is that they don’t worry much about the virus, so they don’t think we need masks, distance, or vaccines. In the latest Harris survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they were concerned about a potential new COVID wave in their area and about being exposed to the virus. Among vaccine refusers, almost the same percentage said they weren’t concerned.

Not all refusers, however, discount the importance of vaccination. Some have made a different calculation: They think they don’t need to get vaccinated because everyone else is getting vaccinated, and they figure that will solve the problem. Three weeks ago, when a Harris poll asked people “why you are not likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one becomes available,” 13 percent of refusers selected this answer: “I don’t need to get it if enough people are vaccinated.”

Many refusers have made the same calculation about masks and other rules: They don’t need to follow such rules because other people are getting vaccinated. Two months ago, when half the vaccine refusers in a Harris poll said they had slacked off on taking precautions, they were asked why. Thirteen percent of the vaccine-refusing slackers selected the answer, “I am at lower risk of getting COVID-19 now since others are getting vaccinated.” A month later, when most vaccine refusers said they felt comfortable attending large gatherings and going into stores and gyms without a mask, one in six gave the same explanation. And when another Harris poll asked people how they planned to “get back to normal,” one-third of respondents who didn’t plan to get vaccinated chose a similar response: “Once enough other people get the vaccine, we will be at herd immunity anyway.”

That’s what we’re up against as we strive to immunize our population. Millions of people won’t wear masks, won’t respect social distance, won’t quarantine when they’re exposed to the virus, won’t take recommended precautions to protect the vulnerable—and won’t get vaccinated when it’s their turn, either. A nation of Anthony Faucis is trapped in a nation of Jim Jordans.

Read the full story at Slate.