September 10, 2021 – Putting the new vaccine mandates in context.
On Thursday, President Biden announced his new six-pronged strategy for putting COVID-19 to bed. The plan includes executive orders that require coronavirus vaccines for federal workers and contractors, health care workers at facilities that receive Medicaid or Medicare funding, and workers of companies with 100 employees or more.
The latter includes an option for workers to forgo vaccines in favor of weekly testing for the virus, and this particular executive order would impact 80 million Americans. Together, the three EOs impact about 100 million people.
Since the vaccines (and most other things) are so polarized, you’ve probably seen some hot takes about how this is “un-American” while you’ve doomscrolled. So, let’s connect this plan to reality and go over some context.
How’s the U.S. doing with vaccinations and case rates?
The latest data shows the U.S. population over the age of 12 is about 63% fully vaccinated (also, 65% of the 18+ population and 82% of the 65+ crowd). The rates of vaccination vary by geography, such as northeastern states having higher rates than southern ones, and by electoral politics, such as traditionally “blue” and “purple” states trouncing “red” ones.
Notably, places with lower vaccination rates are experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. This tracks with two things: the vaccines are very effective in lowering the risk of infection, and the vaccines lower the severity of COVID-19 symptoms for Delta variant breakthrough cases.
(A breakthrough case is when a vaccinated person is infected with COVID-19, typically the highly contagious Delta variant. While there have been lots of headlines regarding breakthrough cases—undoubtedly driving vaccine hesitancy—the data remain clear, that the vaccines are overwhelmingly successful in preventing the wider spread of the virus, as well as making cases far more manageable and far less deadly.)
To recap briefly:
- The majority of Americans eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine have gotten two doses (or one, if they pick the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).
- The vaccine helps in lowering the spread of the virus and helps lower the severity of the Delta variant.
As the vaccination campaign has stalled, the Delta variant has spread rapidly. Because of how contagious Delta is, some cities, counties, and states have reinstituted mask mandates.
(Long story short, Delta is more contagious because it hangs out in your nose for a longer period than other strains. This multiplies the chances of it spreading from one person to another, but it’s a problem easily solved by masks.)
How is the virus impacting the U.S economy?
Not only has the stall in vaccinations and spread of Delta imperiled our public health, but it’s also impacting the economy. Understandably, Americans are growing more anxious about the virus because of Delta’s spread.
That anxiety (plus the full FDA approval of some of the vaccine) has thankfully translated into an uptick in vaccinations. But it’s also contributed heavily to our plateauing economic recovery. In August the U.S. added just 235,000 jobs (down from over 1 million in July), with groups like the restaurant and retail industries actually shedding jobs.
Before someone complains that this has more to do with unemployment benefits that are “too generous” and disincentivizing people from taking jobs in those industries, I have two points:
- Some states ended those benefits months ago. (The boost ended in the remaining states this month.) These states did not see a sudden wave in people being hired—but they did severely hurt their own economies by doing so. (Learn more about the unemployment insurance debate here.)
- Would you want to work in a job that pays poorly in which customers and bosses are more likely to treat you like shit and you have a higher chance of catching COVID-19? Probably not, right?
It makes more sense to draw a different conclusion. People feel less comfortable patronizing restaurants, stores, and other businesses because of COVID-19; and this is forcing businesses to curtail hiring.
All of this brings us to…
How do Americans feel about mandates for vaccinations and mask use?
Despite the hellstorm you may see on social media, Americans are generally supportive of vaccine mandates in several scenarios. A recent Gallup poll found majorities favor a vaccination requirement for flying, staying in hotels, attending large public events, dining out, and working in an office. The divide among those in favor and those against breaks down solidly along a polled person’s own vaccination status as well as their political beliefs.
Similarly, an AP-NORC poll from last month found strong support for mask and vaccine requirements for students and teachers in schools. Plus, an Axios-Ipsos poll reported results similar to each of the three surveys I’ve mentioned so far.
So, while we shouldn’t base public policy solely on polling, these surveys do buttress Biden’s new mandates, as does the blatant public health framing. Most Americans are vaccinated, and a growing majority seem to understand that Delta is really gumming the works. While it’d be easier just to say “everyone please get vaccinated,” that just hasn’t been working—people would rather stick it to whoever is telling them than do the responsible thing.
While these mandates reflect some of the polls and general vibes from most Americans, dummies will still say this particular move by Biden is treating people like children. That’s because the places seeing the worst COVID-19 surges and lowest vaccination rates right now are also more conservative parts of the country. The frustration displayed by the White House and the American public is indirectly focusing on those Republican-leaning cities, counties, and states. So naturally, conservative shock jocks, personalities, and leaders want to kick up dust (and resort to weird ad hominem attacks) because that type of indignation plays to their base while distracting from their lack of ideas.
Never mind what they do privately or quietly, and never mind that the executive order regarding private companies includes the option to just get tested every week instead of getting vaccinated, as mentioned at the top. But hey, that outrage helps sell the news.
All told, the new mandates will directly impact 100 million Americans and, through family and colleagues, probably the rest of the country. These aren’t the result of a dictatorial regime or whatever fever-dreams folks on the right have each night—they’re the answer to a stalling economic recovery and an unnecessarily protracted pandemic. There’s some sympathy for those who still have legitimate concerns about the vaccine; anecdotal horror stories are hard to ignore! But that sympathy doesn’t change the fact that Delta and future strains will continue to hurt us until more people here and abroad get vaccinated. If you truly want to look out for yourself, your family, and your neighbors, then please just get vaccinated.
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