We’ve Come So Far With Vaccines, America. Now Keep Going.
For all the missteps during its early days, the American coronavirus vaccination campaign is poised to go down as a triumph of science and public health. Seven months after the first shots were authorized for emergency use, 66 percent of adults — more than 100 million people — have received at least one dose. That’s not the 70 percent President Biden was aiming to reach by July 4, but it’s close, and it’s an impressive figure.
This progress has enabled the nation to edge its way back to something resembling normal. Daily case counts and death tolls are falling steadily in most places. Restaurants and theaters and barbershops are open. Mask mandates are being lifted. So far, most of the vaccines seem to work well against the dangerous Delta variant and all of its known cousins. What’s more, the latest research suggests that for most people, vaccine boosters will not be needed anytime soon.
It’s worth pausing to acknowledge this triumph. Last summer, the nation was praying for vaccines that would be at least 50 percent effective, and no one was sure whether or when they might arrive. This summer, millions of Americans have been inoculated with vaccines that are more effective than many dared to hope for.
But it’s too soon to declare total victory. The world is still locked in a desperate racebetween the coronavirus’s ability to evolve and society’s ability to vaccinate, and America’s lead in that race is precarious. The virus is evolving quickly and efficiently. Given enough time and enough susceptible hosts, it could still mutate its way around the human immune response and beyond the ability of existing vaccines to help. If that happens, the United States, and any other nations that have made such progress, will be forced backward.
The only way to prevent such a grim outcome is to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible — not just in the United States but everywhere.
There are still many barriers to accomplishing this goal. Vaccine hesitancy is rampant and in some cases baffling: Health care workers witnessed the ravages of Covid-19 firsthand, but some of them are still resisting vaccination and even suing to block vaccine mandates. Some teenagers who want the shots have found that the biggest obstacles are their parents who worry about side effects that have yet to emerge. Many young adults are skipping vaccination because they don’t see the urgency.
Vaccine hesitancy is not the only problem. In most states, Black and Hispanic people have received fewer vaccinations relative to their share of cases and their share of the total population, according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The reasons for this disparity are innumerable, but systemic racism and income inequality play huge roles.
Many marginalized groups are leery of a government that has failed them time and again. Some people have been stymied by a lack of paid leave or by transportation issues or by simple misunderstandings; for instance, not all people have been made aware that they are not supposed to be charged for shots. In Latino communities, the fear of immigration enforcement at vaccination sites looms large.
In other countries, the trouble is both more straightforward and much more dire: There are simply not enough shots to go around. Part of the problem has to do with hoarding, as wealthy nations have gobbled up much of the vaccine supply. But also, vaccine makers are producing only a tiny fraction of what’s needed to begin with. The result is a profound global vaccination gap. While the United States has vaccines for anyone who wants them, most other countries are still struggling to inoculate even their most vulnerable residents, including frontline health care workers and older people. In Indonesia, where the Delta variant is surging, fewer than 5 percent of residents have received any vaccine.
As the second pandemic summer progresses, it will be crucial to tease these strands apart and address the roots of each one.
Much of the growing mistrust of vaccines can be traced to an anti-vaccination movement that is well funded, politically connected and media savvy. Its efforts have succeeded to such an alarming degree that vaccine hesitancy ranked as one of the world’s leading global health threats well before the Covid pandemic emerged. But it’s important to remember that this contingent makes up a small portion of unvaccinated people. A large majority of Americans are not opposed to vaccines, only hesitant. That means they can still be won over.
The Biden administration has started a multimillion-dollar campaign to dispel vaccine misinformation and educate Americans about the benefits of getting the shots. Among other things, it has partnered with WhatsApp to reach Spanish-speaking communities and with NASCAR and the Christian Broadcasting Network to get the message out to other groups. Those are smart and crucial moves. It will be equally important for officials to act locally, because the best vaccine ambassadors are likely to differ from one community to the next. Younger people might be swayed by celebrity influencers. Older people might trust their religious leaders above all others. Parents might want to hear only from doctors, doulas or other parents.
Those who study vaccine hesitancy and science communication say that the most important thing such ambassadors can do is listen. Showering doubters with facts doesn’t work. But hearing them out, validating their underlying concerns and addressing those concerns whenever possible can make a huge difference.
No matter how successful these efforts are, they will be wasted in the long run if the rest of the world is not also vaccinated. In the past two months the Biden administration has donated or promised to donate tens of millions of vaccine doses to countries that need them. Mr. Biden has also supported a global patent waiver that would make it easier for countries and companies to make vaccines themselves. Those are welcome and urgently needed steps. But much more is still needed. To beat this coronavirus, and to prepare for the next pandemic, the United States and other wealthy nations will have to help the world increase its capacity for making and distributing vaccines. That will require a concerted effort and clear leadership.
In the meantime, every unvaccinated person is an opportunity for the virus to spread, multiply and mutate — and every mutation is a chance for it to penetrate all our best defenses. If you have access to any of the coronavirus vaccines and your immune system is not compromised, the single most important thing you can do for yourself, your loved ones and your country is to get vaccinated right away."