A neighbor of ours was out walking her dog the other morning and stopped to tell us how delighted she was about getting her first COVID vaccine. She drove an hour away, to a pharmacy in the Republican-leaning town of Reedsburg, where she easily got an appointment.
While this might not seem completely fair to the people who live closer to the Reedsburg Walgreens, our neighbor was emboldened by the news that almost half of Republican men say they won’t get the COVID shot (compared with just 6% of men who are Democrats).
There are pockets of vaccine-reluctant urbanites as well. Reluctance to get vaccinated among African Americans, for example, has been tied to a legacy of nefarious “public health” efforts including the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which U.S. government doctors deliberately withheld information and treatment from African American syphilis patients. But African American vaccine reluctance is only around 25% according to recent polling, compared with 47% among white men.
As Tiffany Green of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Population Health Sciences told my colleague Erik Gunn, “When I see people commenting about vaccine hesitancy among Black people, they’re using old data, we can see that the rates of intention to take the vaccine among Black Americans are increasing over time. However, the data suggests that white Republicans are actually a big group of vaccine hesitant folks.”
So, state and federal officials are trying to figure out how to lure enough of those vaccine-reluctant conservatives into rolling up their sleeves so we can achieve herd immunity. Rock stars, athletes and other celebrities, including Donald Trump, have been recruited, along with doctors and pastors, to try to convince conservative white men to get their shots.
Here’s another potential motivator for conservative areas of the state: Look out! Madison liberals are coming to take your vaccines!
If public health and common sense aren’t persuasive, maybe our state’s toxic politics of resentment can be harnessed to help defeat the pandemic. It’s not a rational approach, but neither is the way beating the virus has been undermined by an absurd political grudge match.
At bars and restaurants all over rural Wisconsin, not wearing a face mask is as much a badge of honor as putting a billboard-sized Trump sign in your yard.
At a pleasant little diner I visited recently in Alma, near the Wisconsin/Minnesota border, there was not a mask in sight. A sign in the ladies’ room explained the owners’ convoluted reasoning for not asking staff of patrons to wear masks. It would be a violation of federal law and the Bill of Rights to question customers and employees about any health conditions they might have, the sign explained. Since certain health conditions are an acceptable excuse for not adhering to the statewide mask mandate, the restaurant owners would assume — without asking — that everyone who doesn’t wear a mask is suffering from a disease. Given the high rate of COVID in the area, the sign was pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the tiny town of Waumandee, a sign on the door of the local bar suggested patrons wear masks if they want to (they didn’t) and asked that anyone feeling sick or running a fever stay outside. Not exactly a strict code of conduct.
To be fair, rural public-health officials have been doing a terrific job of getting vaccines to people, as Henry Redman reports in the Examiner this week, making Wisconsin number one in the country for distribution of its vaccine supply. In Menominee County, which leads Wisconsin in the percentage of the population that has received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, the tribal clinic on the Menominee Indian Reservation is largely responsible for that success.
But without changing the attitudes of a lot of white Republican men, we won’t be able to get rid of this virus.
Apparently, the impulse to rebel against the government if it dares to tell you what to do is a stronger instinct than self-preservation in Trump country. Trump himself, who got his vaccine in private and hasn’t talked about it much, might be able to help. It was big news when he finally went on Fox and said he would recommend that people get vaccinated. After all, Operation Warp Speed, which rolled out the vaccine in record time, was one of Trump’s proudest achievements.
But if the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that division and rancor are greater motivators than unity and progress for many. Why not organize marchers in Madison and Milwaukee to go into rural areas with the stated intention of using up all the available vaccines? It’s worth a shot.