COVID-19 remains alive through those who refuse to be vaccinated. Why? | Mike Kelly

Mike Kelly
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On most weekdays, Gov. Phil Murphy tells us the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic. But lately the news has settled into a predictably tragic script. 

Several hundred people continue to be infected each day by the deadly virus. On most days, several hundred people are hospitalized around the state, with dozens being treated in intensive care wards. A handful of people continue to die each day.

But here’s the kicker: Almost every COVID-19 case in New Jersey now involves someone who was not vaccinated.

This is the new normal for our state. It’s also the new normal for America. The virus is being spread by people who are not vaccinated. And while New Jersey on Thursday reported no deaths from COVID-19, we face the grim prospect that the virus is still not vanquished. 

Months of trying to convince the nation to unite and beat back COVID-19 has mostly succeeded.  But a significant number of our fellow citizens — between 25% and 30% by some estimates — refuse to join the fight and submit to a vaccine.  And so the virus keeps spreading, like a wildfire with too many hot spots. 

NJ Governor Phil Murphy announces the "Shot and a Beer" program during his Monday, May 3, 2021, COVID-19 briefing delivered at the War Memorial in Trenton.

Some will say they don’t trust the vaccine — or the scientists who promote it. In emails, some of my readers take extra delight in portraying Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, as someone who belongs on the Home Shopping Network. Why? Many point to the doubts raised by former President Donald Trump, the nation’s leading liar.

Others have embraced the widening conspiracy cacophony that promotes all manner of falsehoods about the vaccines, especially the misleading narratives promoted by Fox News and the phony journalist who seems to rule that network, Tucker Carlson.

So now we're seeing the results of the drip-drip-drip of doubt. The unvaccinated are most likely to get sick from this disease. With the extraordinarily dangerous variant known as “Delta” already gaining a foothold here in New Jersey — and across the United States — it will likely be the unvaccinated who will help it spread.

As Murphy correctly noted the other day in a briefing: “This is overwhelmingly now a pandemic of unvaccinated.”

The unvaccinated are to blame

As we approach the national holiday when we celebrate our independence, we find ourselves still shackled to a deadly virus — and the deadly stream of misinformation about it. The difference, however, is that the virus is not all-powerful. Thanks to the brainpower of American scientists who worked round-the-clock in laboratories, we have high-performing vaccines that can stop the pandemic from spreading. But it isn’t science — or the lack of it — that is keeping the virus alive. It’s people — the unvaccinated, as the governor noted.

On Friday, the state Department of Health told me that it had counted 21,901 "confirmed and probable" COVID-19 cases in New Jersey from May 1 to June 14. Only 765 of those cases were fully vaccinated people. The rest -- nearly 97% -- had not bothered to submit to a vaccination shot.  

Murphy’s assessment that COVID-19 is now living among unvaccinated people came just days after the Bidenadministration conceded that it would likely miss its deadline to vaccinate 70% of adults by the Fourth of July.

Daniel Miller, a business teacher at Fairlawn High School in Fairlawn, New Jersey, receives his COVID-19 vaccine shot on Monday, March 15, 2021, in Paramus, New Jersey. The Valley Health System has launched a new program called, "Supporting Our Schools," to make it easier for eligible educators to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

How sad. The 70% threshold was really not a lofty goal. After some initial problems in distributing vaccines, largely due to the shamefully lazy lack of organizing in the final days of the Trump administration, America found its footing. By March, vaccines were plentiful. Hospitals and state health officials worked out the computer kinks. CVS and Walgreens had them. Even volunteers stepped forward to help computer-illiterate seniors sign up for vaccinations. 

It needs to be pointed out here that the vaccines were basically available to anyone who wanted them. And they were free. 

Some non-white communities were slow to sign up. Some people feared the vaccines. Others just couldn’t break away from difficult work schedules. Still others who had come to America as undocumented immigrants balked because they feared they might be deported.

But health officials persisted. In Paterson, a vaccine van rolled down streets day after day. In Newark, a variety of civic and religious leaders routinely called on residents to trust the vaccine. Newark native Queen Latifah joined with local officials in promoting the vaccine.  

Newark native Queen Latifah, star of the CBS drama “The Equalizer,” and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka at the Essex County COVID Vaccination Center at Essex County College on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Latifah received her first COVID-19 vaccination shot.

In fairness, some people have legitimate fears of this vaccine. Yes, the statistics tell us that it is safe for most of us. But after getting a shot, some of us ran a fever for a day. Some of us felt light-headed — as if we were slightly hung over. Some of us felt nauseous.

And some people died. One of my friends — a middle-aged man — died suddenly of a heart attack just two days after his vaccination. Was his death linked to the shot? We don’t know.

Conspiracy-theory lunacy

I mention this because people have sincere misgivings. And those misgivings should be respected.

But far too many of the unvaccinated are merely responding to the tidal wave of conspiracy theories about the vaccines that flows largely from America’s ultra right wing. The polls tell us that most people who mistrust the vaccines are Republicans who also believe that Trump should still be president.

And so the conspiracy madness that has infected America's right wing has now seeped into our nation’s public health. It seems like a lost chapter from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” But it’s not. This is part of the new normal in America.

Nonetheless, the numbers of vaccinated New Jersey residents have slowly climbed. And likewise, the numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths dropped.

Vaccinated yet vulnerable:Rare breakthrough COVID case takes NJ transplant recipient's life

But for several weeks now, those numbers seem to have reached a disheartening plateau of several hundred new cases each day, several hundred in hospitals and a smattering of deaths. On some days, a dozen die.  Other days, just a few. But the dying continues.  

That may not seem like much of a problem in a state with nearly 9 million people. And, when you consider that most children are still awaiting a workable vaccine, the numbers seem downright tiny. But imagine for a moment that New Jersey had several hundred new measles cases each day. Or, even worse, malaria.

And suppose a dozen New Jersey residents died of measles or malaria each day. Suppose 300 or so measles and malaria patients filled beds in our already crowded hospitals.

You can bet that we would notice and become alarmed. 

So what’s the difference now?

The battle against COVID-19 has been politicized. That’s a harsh assessment.  But what else can we call this mindset?

Murphy is not willing to point fingers. He’s smart. After all, he’s running for reelection. And right now, he seems to be on a glide-path to a second term. Why stir up all those Trumpers? 

The same is true of the Biden administration. Like Murphy, the White House has embraced a slow-and-steady mantra or urging Americans to get vaccinated. 

Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration’s “focus from the beginning has been continuing to redouble our efforts” with reluctant “demographics and groups where we need extra assistance.”

But Psaki conceded the White House campaign has limits too. “Ultimately,” she said, “it is going to be up to individuals to decide if they want to get vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, offices are trying to reopen. Families are trying to reunite again for weddings, funerals and backyard barbecues. We want normalcy to return in our schools and universities. And our malls. And hair salons. And restaurants. 

In short, we’re trying to get on with life, sometimes with a mask, sometimes without one. But America and life as we want it has this nagging problem: What should we do with the unvaccinated among us?

We’re trying to answer that question as the new and extremely dangerous Delta variant of COVID-19 begins to spread.

We desperately want to return to normal.

But we can’t. 

Our new normal has become the abnormal.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @mikekellycolumn 

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