Commentary

Kids are getting their shots — so should Ron Johnson

May 12, 2021 6:00 am
Ron Johnson with his mouth open in a yell

“Ron Johnson” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My eighth-grader cannot wait to get her COVID vaccine. Gone are the days of needle dread, when every trip to the doctor’s office prompted the same anxious question: “Will I have to get a shot?”

Now the question is, “How soon can I get vaccinated?” and, “Then can I hug my friends?”

The youngest, she will be the last one in our family to get the vaccine, approved this week for 12-to-15-year-olds by the FDA, with the CDC expected to deliver final public health guidance shortly. She can hardly wait.

My oldest daughter, now in college, is already fully vaccinated. She was 5 years old when, during a flu shot appointment, she made a break for it. She ran all the way down the clinic hallway and out the revolving door. She was headed for the parking lot when I caught up with her and dragged her back inside — a scene neither of us will ever forget. 

For years she hated needles. In high school she passed out cold after a series of shots at that same doctor’s office. But she, too, was delighted when she became eligible for the COVID vaccine, and rushed to get an appointment. It was great, she said — nothing to it.

Let’s hope all the vaccine-hesitant people in our lives undergo a similar transformation, from leery to gung-ho.

As public health officials keep reminding us, we need everyone who can get a COVID shot to get one, so we can achieve herd immunity and get our lives back.

We are on the brink, this spring, of getting back to normal.

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I recently started going into the Examiner office, after a winter spent sitting around the house with my loved ones, staring at our separate screens and bumping into each other as we cruised the kitchen and binged on crackers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to have the option to work from home, and cozy to be with the family. Everyone enjoyed it, for a while. Especially the dog. But it’s amazing to be back in the world again. The first day I visited our silent office after a year away, I cleared up yellowing newspapers with headlines from March 2020 about the pandemic, threw away dried flower petals scattered across the carpet by a bouquet that was quickly turning to dust.

Now, I look out the window and see crowded cafe tables on the street below. I hear bubbling conversation and music from the coffee shop downstairs. The coffee crowd slowly gives way to the after-work beer crowd as the sun sinks behind the Capitol. It feels like the world is coming alive again, especially in the beautiful spring weather.

We can’t hibernate forever.

You would think the Reopen crowd would be thrilled by the success of Wisconsin’s tops-in-the-nation vaccination program, and eager to get their shots and put the pandemic behind us. But alas, you would be wrong about that. 

Our own Sen. Ron Johnson — the same guy who said COVID deaths were not such a big deal, that people needed to get back to work early in the pandemic and that stay-at-home orders were not worth the economic cost, is pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Johnson claimed on rightwing talker Vicki McKenna’s radio show last week that lots of people have died after getting the vaccine, and cited those (debunked) statistics as a reason for “sticking up for people who choose not to get vaccinated.” 

Johnson, an Ayn Rand acolyte, truly does not seem to grasp the concept of public health — or society, for that matter. “If you have a vaccine, quite honestly, what do you care if your neighbor has one or not?” he said, firmly staking out the political terrain that opposes the control of contagious disease.

This is the same guy who publicized snake oil remedies for COVID at a U.S. Senate hearing, to the dismay of doctors.

No surprise, then, that he was an outlier “no” vote on Tuesday when Andrea Palm, the former head of Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, sailed through Senate confirmation to become the No. 2 at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Palm must be so delighted to be moving up and out from Wisconsin, after enduring relentless attacks from state Republicans just for doing her job and trying to protect us all from a deadly virus. Johnson’s “no” vote is practically an endorsement.  

What is it with our state’s Republican leaders? Why must they start a war with sane public health policies in the middle of a public health crisis? Why must they oppose masks and social distancing and  vaccination? Couldn’t they pick one? 

White, Republican men are the biggest anti-maskers and the least willing to get vaccinated. Some of the same “don’t tread on me” sign-carriers who gathered on the State Capitol lawn to protest Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order last spring appear to have moved on to the Alliant Center, holding some of the same signs objecting to the “nanny state” while promoting Johsonesque anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.

Driving past this crowd reminded me of chasing my daughter through the revolving door when she was running away from her shot. Irrational fear is hard to control. The least our political leaders can do is not give it a running start. 

Instead, they should remind people how badly they wanted to reopen the state a year ago. Now’s their chance. Get vaccinated, so we can get back to normal.

If my shot-resistant kids can do it, so can all those Republican men. Because I’m getting too old to chase you through the parking lot.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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