Being a Democrat from South Mississippi, I have long believed that I have an obligation to communicate to people in Washington how Americans are feeling outside the Beltway and the corridors of power and wealth.
Now, I believe I must speak up about the deep-seated reluctance of many of my friends and neighbors to take the COVID-19 vaccine, due to their distrust of Washington. Simply put: The federal government must take aggressive and immediate actions to dispel the irrational concerns stopping so many Americans from being vaccinated.
I wasn’t shocked to see reporting that only 21.9 percent of Mississippi’s population has gotten a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 24.5 percent nationally. And worse, that Black Mississippians have only accounted for 28 percent of doses, even though they make up nearly 38 percent of the state’s population. This is why I so strongly disagree with the Mississippi governor’s recent decision to lift the statewide mask mandate, because it sends the message that this pandemic is over, when it’s not.
On vaccines, the disconnect between folks in Washington and people around the country is simple. Everyone I know in D.C. cannot wait to get their vaccine. And inside the Beltway, people under the age of 65 are doing whatever they can to get a shot; I’ve heard anecdotal stories of people travelling hours to go to more rural locations — such as in Western Maryland — to get the highly coveted dose.
But down here in Mississippi, I run into people all the time who could get a vaccine, but refuse to. And the overwhelming reason is that they don’t trust the government. When people go online to register for a dose, they have to provide all kinds of personal information, which spooks them from getting vaccinated.
The most awful thing about people refusing to get the vaccine is that they are worried about something they don’t need to be nervous about. They are rejecting a potentially life-saving vaccine over unfounded fears. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other medical research institutions, are using this information for the public good, to track the efficacy of vaccines and disease patterns for safety, and not to identify people for any other reason. Not only that but collecting and exchanging this critical data allows hospitals to properly allocate their resources and prepare for influxes of patients, so that they can offer the best care possible.
As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, the data collected “is crucial for safely administering doses” and “patients have little to fear.” Walter Orenstein, who ran the immunization program at the CDC from 1988 to 2004 and is now with the Emory Vaccine Center, told the paper, “The benefits exceed any risks.”
But any effort from Washington to contain irrational vaccine fears should be bipartisan because Republicans have shown a greater deal of hesitancy to get the vaccine. A March 10-13 CBS News poll revealed that only 47 percent of Republicans had already received the vaccine or planned to do so, compared with 71 percent of Democrats. Worse, a March 3-8 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that 47 percent of people who backed Donald Trump in the 2020 election said they won’t choose to be vaccinated, as opposed to 10 percent of Americans who voted for Joe Biden. I would hope my Republican friends would see this data and be willing to support government policies to reverse this potentially deadly trend.
Thankfully, the pandemic relief legislation signed by President Biden includes billions of federal dollars to help ensure effective vaccine distribution. I strongly urge the White House and the Biden administration to use this funding to better inform the American people about how the government and health care institutions use their personal information, for the well-being of the nation.
American researchers have led the way in curing this terrible plague. We mustn’t let anti-science views on vaccines or irrational fears about personal data or partisan divides prevent our family, friends and neighbors from being vaccinated. We are all in this together, and every American who refuses to be vaccinated slows our march to recovery.
Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, represented Mississippi in the House from 1999 to 2003.