Dean C. Alexander: ,,#COVID-19, anti-vaxxers and moving forward together”

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What Happens If I Miss My Second Dose of COVID-19 Vaccine? | Houston Methodist On Health

By November 2021, COVID-19 killed five million people worldwide, with 750,000 deaths in the United States. This article highlights issues relative to those opposed to COVID-19 inoculations, particularly fringe actors who conduct threats or undertake violence in this regard. A myriad of related topics will be shared. A future piece will center on anti-vaxxers globally.

Anti-Vaxxers and Counterpoints

The rationales for refusing to inoculate with COVID-19 vaccines span widely, including:

  • Vaccines do not work well or cause more damage than COVID-19
  • Vaccines have not been studied adequately
  • Requiring vaccines impinges upon one’s freedom to do what one wants with their body and interferes with one’s religious beliefs
  • Forcing children to be inoculated usurps the autonomy of parents with regard to their children’s health
  • Vaccines contain microchips and will alter one’s DNA
  • Vaccines are an effort to control the population

These arguments are made by well-meaning individuals to those less so. Some of the latter may even support violence against others holding different perspectives. It is important to differentiate between those who take an anti-vaccine stance with others who break the law in an effort to advance a cause. The individuals are distinct, and failure to differentiate between the two is improper. The effects of not abiding by vaccine requirements may include being ostracized and ridiculed by (former) friends and colleagues, estrangement from family members, dismissal from employment, and — potentially — removal of one’s children from school.

Anti-vaxxers and others lament the inadequate attention given to natural immunity in the population. In October 2021, a conservative radio show host said he purposely sought to get COVID-19 (and he did), doing so “in the hope that I would achieve natural immunity and be taken care of by therapeutics.” Such an approach does not appear to be ideal as one study found unvaccinated persons have a 29 times greater chance to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than a vaccinated person. A November 2021 Texas Department of State Health Services report revealed “[u]nvaccinated people were 20 times more likely to experience COVID-19-associated death than fully vaccinated people.” Even so, those vaccinated “express confusion, concern over-vaccination information and health impacts.” As booster shots will be administered more broadly in the coming months and more children get immunized, the gap between protections appending the vaccinated and unvaccinated will widen.

Some vaccine skeptics do change their mind as one study found about 33% ultimately get vaccinated, and another 37% anticipate they will do so. In contrast, “vaccine-hesitant people aged between 45-54 (41%), with a high school education or less (38%) and living in a metropolitan area (38%) were the most likely to still resist vaccination by the end of the study, with only 18%, 24% and 31% having been vaccinated, respectively.”

The social stigma of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine in regions of the country pushed selected patients to get their shots in disguise. Of those, some begged medical providers not to disclose they received an inoculation. For individuals to pursue such steps underscore how caustic the COVID-19 inoculation debate has become. Analogously, anti-vaxxers use fake COVID-19 immunization cards as more mandates are adopted. This is done to avoid the vaccination while appearing otherwise and, thereby, keep their jobs. Vermont State Troopers resigned following their use of fake COVID-19 immunization cards. Federal agents in Seattle seized fake COVID-19 immunization cards bound to Idaho.

Misinformation about COVID-19 is disseminated extensively on online, cable, and broadcast networks. Conspiracies project “power from being seemingly everywhere at once, simultaneously unprovable and unimpeachable.” Strangely, anti-vaxxers claimed a Tennessee-based nurse died following her inoculation with a COVID-19 vaccine. The allegations were incorrect as she had a fainting response. Nevertheless, this untruth continues to spread across social media. Also, anti-vaxxers have used Ivermectin as opposed to getting the vaccine which may cost them their lives. Other anti-vaxxers ingested iodine-based liquid Betadine to prevent COVID-19 rather than getting immunized.

Straight talk is critical in overcoming misinformation about COVID-19. However, absolutism is unwarranted when facts do not support such assertions. For instance, the vaccines are efficacious following some period after inoculation, but they may still allow for breakthrough infections. Some recipients will get COVID, and others may get a severe reaction (and very rarely may die). But, the overall protection of the vaccine over its non-use are strongly grounded in science. The potency of the vaccine will wane, necessitating selected persons to get a booster. The fact that a booster may be required for some — as with other selected vaccines — does not mean the COVID-19 vaccine is not an effective instrument.

Attacks on COVID-19 public health pronouncements (partially) arose because the data government officials looked at when they made their projections were “imperfect” (not complete in the sense the pandemic was evolving as well as the understanding of it). These public health guidelines — some of which were modified at a later point — were characterized by opponents as proof that officials did not know what they were doing or purposefully misrepresented data. In reality, neither of those things were the case.

By fall 2021, a growing number of highly visible anti-vaxxers, including five conservative radio show hosts, were among those who passed due to COVID-19. A caustic Reddit board, entitled HermanCainAward, includes “[n]ominees for the award must have made public anti-vaccine or anti-mask statements and must be very ill or have died from complications of coronavirus.” Ridiculing those who died due to the pandemic is callous and contributes to a worsening dynamic. Meriting mention, too, is the inconsistency on COVID-19 issues that appears to exist at Fox Corporation. After all, the firm disclosed that “90% of our full-time employees reported that they are fully vaccinated.” Concurrently, anti-vax sentiments and misconceptions about COVID-19 are projected by some of its network’s personalities.

Of note, since the pandemic began, six times as many police officers have died of COVID-19 than by gunfire. Thus, resistance to inoculation by particular police officers and their selected unions is disappointing given the deleterious consequences on the unvaccinated. Likewise, opposition to vaccine mandates has been expressed by select firefighters and their labor representatives. While the majority of healthcare workers have chosen to get vaccinated, others have opted to eschew the shot by resigning or getting dismissed from their jobs.

Pandemic-induced unemployment afforded individuals with newly-found free time. These circumstances contributed in another manner: the prospect of becoming enthralled in anti-vax sentiments. Particular anti-vaxxers have adopted other radicalism with participation in the January 6th siege at the U.S. Capitol, such as a Virginia couple. As with QAnon, Stop the Steal, and other ideologies attracting candidates for political office, so too, the anti-vax matrix is enticing individuals to seek office. These developments may contribute to further chasms in an already turbulent political climate. Upon election to office, they will attain political power and possibly attempt to undermine legitimate COVID-19 efforts.

Fringe elements of the anti-vax community argue the COVID-19 vaccine is part of “a United Nations plan to establish a New World Order.” In the wake of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, COVID-19 conspiracy proponents argued the incidents signified “the elites [are] waging a biological and genetic war.” Far-right anti-vaxxers refer to themselves as purebloods with the hashtag #PureBlood. Pro-vax signage at a church was rearranged, referring to support for the vaccine as in support of the Antichrist. The anti-lockdown movement has also attracted the participation of “white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, anti-government militias, members of a neo-fascist street gang, and other assorted extremists and scam artists.”

Tolerance for anti-vaxxers is waning , coupled with a recognition that millions will not get inoculated under nearly every circumstance. Those choosing to opt-out of COVID-19 vaccinations have been characterized as individuals who refuse an insurance product: you may not need it (you might not be exposed to COVID), but it is worth having in case you do (less likely to become severely ill or die). The 750,000 COVID-attributed deaths in the United States as of November 2021 indicate that taking out insurance is wise, barring extenuating circumstances.

Threats by Fringe Anti-Vaxxers

An August 2021 U.S. Department of Homeland Security terrorism advisory noted: “[E]xtremists may seek to exploit the emergence of COVID-19 variants by viewing the potential re-establishment of public health restrictions across the United States as a rationale to conduct attacks. Pandemic-related stressors have contributed to increased societal strains and tensions, driving several plots by domestic violent extremists, and they may contribute to more violence this year.” Some extremists — Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys and QAnon — and fringe activists have shifted their efforts from Stop the Steal to opposing the vaccine (Stop the Vaccine) as means to reduce confidence in government exacerbate discord and culture wars in society, and accelerate the likelihood of civil unrest. The founder of America’s Frontline Doctors and a prominent COVID skeptic was arrested for participation in the January 6th siege at the U.S. Capitol, including violent entry and disorderly conduct charges.

Insider threats are indicative of anti-vax sentiments permeating across sectors, even among healthcare professionals. A pharmacist at a Wisconsin hospital purposely removed 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine with the goal of rendering them ineffective. Between March and April 2021, a nurse in Friesland, Germany, injected nearly 8,600 patients with a placebo (saline solution) rather than a COVID-19 vaccine. Not surprisingly, her social media account advocated anti-vax perspectives.

When anti-vaccine rhetoric percolates to the point of threatening or attacking vaccine proponents, the movement mirrors other forms of extremism. In particular, these traits are akin to radical anti-mask adherents whose fervency is so pronounced that they demonize — or worse — those who think differently. Because anti-vax positions are not rooted in traditionally accepted scientific facts, they are similar to sovereign citizens whose core ideologies are factually baseless. This devotion to groundless principles makes it difficult to dissuade such followers as to their beliefs. Deterring them from committing violence may prove challenging as well.

The imposition of vaccine requirements in selected federal, state, and local government settings as well as in other sectors may have the effect of discharging employees who refuse to inoculate or are denied an exemption. Conceivably, small portions of these newly unemployed may seek to engage in violence against their former employer or those whom they perceive are the reason for their untimely dispatch from the workforce. This frustration and anger regarding COVID restrictions may worsen when such measures come into full effect with parents and their children being dismissed or barred from their employers and schools, respectively.

This exasperation is not limited to the unvaccinated, as a Sept. 2021 poll found three-quarters of Americans are “pessimistic about the economy, the pandemic and their communities.” Too, COVID “and a series of unprecedented, life-altering changes in the rules of human engagement have left people anxious, confused and, especially if they do not believe the restrictions were necessary, deeply resentful.”

Nevertheless, according to polling, the majority of Americans support COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Vaccination mandates promulgated by the federal government affecting entities with over 100 employees have mostly yielded very high vaccination rates across multiple business sectors and governmental instrumentalities. Also, these measures have given firms that wanted to institute such inoculation requirements — but feared backlash from their employees — some cover to implement these steps without being ostracized for doing so.

In October 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Maine’s right to require particular healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated. Generally, courts have upheld vaccine mandates affecting government workers and state university students. Analogously, a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, supports government efforts to implement public health parameters (“upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.”)

Other Fringe Anti-Vax Efforts

Other fringe anti-vax “resistance” efforts straddle or cross legal limits, including their actions against health and other employees. Indeed, anti-vax harassment, threats, and disruptions have been varied since the pandemic’s arrival. A number of them are shared below.

Contempt for Healthcare Employees, Peril at Vaccination and Testing Sites

The pandemic has triggered antipathy among some anti-vaxxers towards healthcare workers. So much so that these public servants have been maligned, threatened, or worse by disparate folks who perceive COVID restrictions and vaccination mandates being legitimized by them. These heretofore esteemed pillars of society are even being designated as public enemies within some anti-vaxxer milieus.

Fringe anti-vaxxers are involved with intimidation (e.g., online rants, physical attacks, protests at work and home) of public health officials. These threats have resulted in such victims relinquishing their jobs for safer situations. The brain trust leaving with their departure will not be replaced easily. The Orange County, California, chief health officer resigned after receiving a death threat. Anti-closure protesters, including some armed, gathered at the home of Ohio’s Department of Health director. Those who remain in their posts are overwhelmed from long hours, staffing shortages and countless objections to shutdown rules, masking requirements and vaccine mandates.

Hazards to healthcare professionals supportive of masking and vaccine measures have ranged from demanding they quit to assaults and death threats. Perils facing prominent public health officials have been particularly acute, including email rants threatening to kill Dr. Anthony Fauci and his family. Elsewhere, online attacks against physicians based on their immutable characteristics have proliferated since the pandemic. Female and minority doctors have been subjected to diatribes with heightened frequency. To combat such and related onslaughts, an organization, Shots Heard Round the World, was established as a “rapid response network dedicated to combating anti-vaccine attacks on the social media pages, web sites, and review of site providers, practices, hospitals, and whole health systems.”

At a pharmacy in Canada in September 2021, a man punched a nurse in the face, her alleged mistake: administering a COVID-19 vaccine to his wife without the husband’s consent. Worse yet, in October 2021, a man killed his pharmacist brother because he accused the latter of poisoning people with the COVID-19 vaccine. The perpetrator also killed the pharmacist’s wife and another woman.

Mobile COVID-19 immunization sites needed security following repeated attacks, protests, and vandalism, including in Pennsylvania. Entrances to vaccination sites, including Dodger Stadium in California, were blocked by anti-vax protesters. This led to the suspension of inoculations at the location for hours. A Walgreens COVID-19 testing site in Kentucky was vandalized with graffiti, including “False Positives.” An anti-vaxxer, along with his small following, entered a Walmart in Missouri and threatened pharmacists administering the Covid-19 vaccination.

A woman in Tennessee drove her SUV towards health workers and National Guard employees who manned a COVID administration vaccine event. In Washington state, anti-vax and far-right protesters demonstrated outside a hospital seeking the release of a person falsely accused of being held against her will. QAnon sympathizers harassed a Chicago hospital and its staff in an effort to get a QAnon and anti-vax proponent — then infected with COVID-19 and admitted there — to be provided with “ivermectin, a drug typically used as a horse dewormer that has not been approved as a treatment for COVID-19.” She subsequently died due to COVID-19 complications.

A California state legislator, and proponent of vaccines, was verbally assaulted and pushed by an anti-vax proponent. An anti-vax female protester threw blood from her “feminine hygiene device” from the gallery of the California Senate onto the legislative floor. “Anti-vaccine protesters have been a mainstay in the legislative galleries, holding U.S. flags upside down.” The latter symbols are often associated with sovereign citizens and other anti-government movements.

Schools

Tensions have run high amid the return of in-person learning at schools, along with mandatory masking. Elsewhere, as in Georgia, the governor issued “an executive order preventing schools from using the state’s public health employees as a basis for mask mandates.” Disagreements among those supporting mask use and those opposed to it have clashed verbally, physically assaulted one another, and otherwise threatened violence against those with opposing views. Also, school board meetings discussing the use of masks have continued to be divisive nationwide. The rise in COVID-19 connected to “harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers” in public schools prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to encourage cooperation between law enforcement and schools to stem such illegal acts.

Parents have attacked teachers who enforced mask requirements for pupils. A parent and two others showed up with zip-tie handcuffs in hand at an Arizona school, threatening to make a citizen’s arrest over the principal instituting a COVID-19 quarantine on a pupil. An anti-masker was arrested for shoving a female high school student in Florida while protesting the high school’s mask policy. In October 2021, a speaker at an anti-vax protest in Staten Island, New York, threatened, “If they are going to push this on the kids … I can guarantee you one thing, town halls and schools will be f#ckin burned down to the ground.” An anti-vax school staff member in Oregon dressed, in blackface, as Rosa Parks to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

While selected parents are opposed to masking and COVID vaccine mandates for children, other parents are concerned about what they perceive as insufficient attention paid at schools regarding masking and other safety measures.

Polling finds that parents seem to be more vaccine-resistant when it comes to their children than themselves. Yet, within a week or so of approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids 5 to 11, some 900,000 children obtained their first dose. Another 700,000 made appointments to be vaccinated at various pharmacies. In October 2021, California added the COVID-19 vaccine as a required inoculation for grades K-6 and 7-12. This requirement is projected “to apply to grades 7-12 starting on July 1, 2022.” The imposition of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations across some jurisdictions will lead to further animus, and possible violence.

Reducing Tensions 

Pandemic views can be grounded in self-crafted, moral convictions. In doing so, incivility towards opposing views can be done more easily and with a greater self-anointed moral justification than otherwise. Unfortunately, this is a reality we find ourselves facing. It is difficult, though possible, to affirm one’s adherence to a belief while simultaneously allowing for openness when data demonstrate realities other than one actually believed emerge.

Sadly, the state of play surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine appears to have only hardened diametrically opposed perspectives. Such an environment does little to promote the prospects of off-ramping of those embracing extremist tenets among this populace. And so, the predilection to mobilize towards violence may entice persons who act as lone wolves, in a cabal, or perpetrators acting at the instruction of a group.

In this highly contentious and rancorous political and social atmosphere, with vaccines now embedded in boiling culture wars, it would be wise to accelerate efforts in dialogue and understanding among persons with highly disparate viewpoints. Also, political, business, civic and other leaders must advocate reducing tensions relative to this pandemic rather than inflaming them. As much as it may otherwise enhance their appeal momentarily, the inclination to belittle, parody, or otherwise disparage the opposition must be avoided.

In retrospect, attacks on the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic were also saddled with opposition-infused political machinations. Whatever weaknesses  that administration had relative to COVID-19 policies, it did contribute to and incentivized the rapid development of some COVID-19 vaccines and their distribution. Failure to acknowledge that success creates further chafes in an already thorny conversation and contributes to further partisanship and tribalism. It is also a truism that, at times, the Trump administration downplayed the pandemic’s potency and the benefits of vaccines, masks, social distancing, and shutdowns. This askance relative to some anti-COVID-19 efforts contributed to shaping the perspectives of particular constituencies.

Similarly, resistance to anti-COVID-19 measures — vaccine-related or otherwise — promoted by the Biden administration is too often driven by political calculations of the opposition. Not only have there been barbs exchanged among federal politicians on COVID-19 responses, but also state leadership across both sides of the aisle has engaged in such invectives. By some accounts, the U.S. government’s failures to the pandemic have many contributors. Still, a reticence to malign any COVID-19 measure would go a long way to reduce the political animus, and instead, move us towards focusing our efforts on the real enemy — the pandemic.

Despite whatever challenges exist, one must remain hopeful. COVID-19 infections and deaths in early November 2021 compared to the previous year are substantially less, due, in significant part, to national vaccination rates of 58.5% (fully vaccinated) and 67.5% (at least one dose) this month. Disparities in full vaccination rates across the country (71.7% of Vermont residents and 40.3% of West Virginia  residents) mostly correlate with predominantly Democratic and Republican-leaning states, the latter having fewer vaccinations per capita.

On the medical front, Merck’s new antiviral drug, molnupiravir, appears to reduce by half “the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 when given to high-risk people within the first five days of infection.” Similarly, Pfizer’s “COVID-19 pill, used in combination with a widely used HIV drug, cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% in high-risk adults who’ve been exposed to the virus.” Also, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals disclosed that its antibody cocktail lessens the chance of contracting COVID-19 “by 81.6% in the two to eight months period following the drug’s administration.”

Ultimately, COVID-19, as other hazards, is a risk that needs to be managed. It is a peril that cannot be eliminated nor denied to exist. As such, current and emerging scientifically-based solutions to reduce the breadth and lethality of COVID-19 should be pursued vigorously. Moreover, our common objective should be to attack the virus, not each other.

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Dean C. Alexander is Director of the Homeland Security Research Program and Professor at the School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University. He is the author of the new book, Family Terror Networks (2019), available at Amazon.com. He is also a valued member of Security’s Editorial Advisory Board.

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Robert Williams

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