By this point, it seems like COVID-19 should have faded into the annals of history. When vaccines began rolling out late last year, it felt like the end of the pandemic was at hand. But here we are, some 600 days since the first case was detected in the United States, and the novel coronavirus continues to spread and sicken people across the country. Here in Wyoming, we’re seeing more hospital beds filling up with COVID-19 patients and case numbers approaching the worst levels of 2020 — and we’re not even into cold and flu season, when germs tend to circulate.

A large reason we remain in this tough spot is that many Americans have decided to forgo getting vaccinated. While people who are vaccinated are not immune from the novel coronavirus and its variants, they are significantly less likely to catch it — and if they do, they’re much less likely to become seriously ill.

When the Wyoming Department of Health looked at more than 5,000 cases of COVID-19 between May and late July, they found nearly 95% of the infected people were not fully vaccinated; among 300 patients who were hospitalized with the disease and interviewed by public health officials, nearly 94% were not fully immunized.

Despite the data, however, only a bit more than one in three Wyomingites (35.9%) had been completely vaccinated as of last week. We certainly need to do more to end this pandemic and more people should be rolling up their sleeves for shots.

Still, it was shocking on Thursday to see the Biden administration roll out a new heavy-handed approach — ordering workers at larger businesses, government agencies and contractors to undergo vaccinations (or, in the case of businesses, conducting weekly testing). Stiff fines and even firings could follow for businesses and workers who refuse to comply.

“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” President Joe Biden said Thursday, according to The Associated Press, adding that unvaccinated people “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”

We understand the frustration — and it’s true that individual decisions to forgo vaccinations or to eschew common sense precautions raise our collective vulnerability to COVID-19. But a mandate seems destined to only make things worse.

Every person’s reasoning for getting or skipping the vaccine is different, but the regrettable, political aspects of the pandemic and an abundance of dangerous misinformation have made many hesitant. This attempt by the Biden administration to strong-arm people into doing the right thing will only give more credence to those narratives — while serving as a massive distraction.

Consider Gov. Mark Gordon, who’s been consistently encouraging Wyomingites to get vaccinated. Following Biden’s comments on Thursday, the governor immediately pledged to fight this “egregious example of big government overreach.”

“It has no place in America. Not now, and not ever,” Gordon said in a statement.

You can expect plenty more of that rhetoric in the weeks and months to come, with the partisan fights and protests over the mandates obscuring the overwhelming consensus that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

In fact, it’s one of the rare things that former President Donald Trump and President Biden agree on.

“I believe totally in your freedoms, I do,” Trump said at a rally in Cullman, Alabama, last month. “You’re free, you got to do what you have to do. But I recommend, take the vaccines.”

“I did it, it’s good,” Trump told the crowd. “Take the vaccines.”

Unfortunately, we suspect that message will now be shelved or lost amid the noise as Republicans, Democrats and everyone else spar over mandates.

Perhaps the worst part is the timing, because we were starting to see some progress in getting more Wyomingites vaccinated. The Casper Star-Tribune noted on Sept. 7 that, over the prior two weeks, nearly 8,800 people in the state had received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine — the highest number since the shots first became available; as cases have risen and the body of evidence supporting the vaccines has grown, more people are becoming more receptive to the shots.

But a federal mandate may stoke unease. As Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston put it last year, as the county discussed public health orders, “This is Wyoming: Ask us to do stuff, we’re probably going to do it. Tell us to do stuff, you might get a negative response there.”

We hope people choose to do the right thing anyway. Regardless of what the Biden administration or Congress do, regardless of how the Supreme Court may rule on a mandate and regardless of what someone on social media says about COVID-19 vaccines, the fact remains that they are one of the best weapons we have in our real battle: to save lives and put an end to this pandemic.

Amid all the distractions, let’s stay focused on that goal.

Powell Tribune

Sept. 14

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