We need people vaccinated, but Biden’s mandate may end up hindering the effort, Robert Gehrke writes

Trying to compel vaccine holdouts to get shots is creating a backlash and even more strident opposition

(Bryan Schott | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utahns opposed to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses pack a committee hearing room at the Utah State Capitol on September 15, 2021. President Biden's rollout of a vaccine requirement for businesses with more than 100 employees has triggered a backlash in Utah and elsewhere.

We could be done with this pandemic.

No. We SHOULD be done with this pandemic.

In April we were vaccinating 30,000 people a day in Utah. By June cases were down to about 200 per day on average and the end of this seemed to be within reach.

But then vaccinations plummeted, allowing the Delta variant to spread like wildfire among those who couldn’t be bothered to help us get life back to normal.

Politicians and religious leaders have pleaded with people to do the right thing. Doctors and scientists have tried to reason with them, to no avail.

So, having exhausted all options, President Joe Biden has directed businesses with more than 100 employees — 2,036 companies in the state of Utah, covering 64% of workers — to mandate vaccines for their workers or conduct regular testing.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Utah political leaders, predictably, were outraged. Attorney General Sean Reyes has joined his Republican colleagues in threatening to sue the Biden administration. Sen. Mike Lee and Gov. Spencer Cox voiced their opposition. And Utah legislators held hearings with an eye toward resisting the mandate.

State Rep. Paul Ray, said that, in his mind, this is “a person’s choice.”

“If you choose not to get vaccinated, you get sick and you die. That’s on you,” he said during a recent legislative hearing on vaccines. “That’s your call.”

If that was truly the case, the stubborn refusal of some to lend a hand — or an arm — toward beating the pandemic wouldn’t be so infuriating. But in reality, they’re the ones who have driven our case counts to eight times the level they were in June.

They’re the ones who have pushed our doctors and nurses to the breaking point with failing lungs and “MAGA” hats, to the point that those who did the sensible thing and got vaccinated might not be able to get the care they need. (As the cherry on top, these health care providers get people like Ray blaming the hospitals for being overcrowded.)

These unvaccinated are the ones infecting people too young to get the shots at rates we haven’t seen at any other time during the pandemic, threatening their health, their education and in rare instances their lives.

They’re the ones who are making sure that, rather than having just one or two Utahns die a day, we’re now looking at 50 or more a week. And it’s not just the 42% of unvaccinated Utahns who are getting sick and dying because statistically for every five of them who die, they’re taking the life of a responsible Utahn.

Statistically, those breakthrough deaths are overwhelmingly older and often frail Utahns, the data shows, but that doesn’t mean they should have died because of someone else’s whim.

With our vaccine program stuck in the mud, areas with low vaccination rates were experiencing crushing caseloads and hospitalizations. Children too young to be vaccinated were at risk. So the Biden mandate — in concept, at least — seems like a reasonable measure. The concern is whether it will actually work in the real world.

Legally — despite what Attorney General Sean Reyes and his Republican colleagues have argued — there is precedent for it, not just the face that we require kids to get vaccinated to go to school, but in 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Massachusetts town could legally require vaccines to stave off a smallpox epidemic.

And the option to forego the vaccine and have weekly testing offers important wiggle room.

But in practice, I fear that the mandate won’t have the desired effect and may end up undermining vaccination efforts.

Opinion polls show that between 51% in a CNN poll and 60% in an Axios-Ipsos poll support the vaccine mandate. But that level of support is well below the 75% of people nationally who have had at least one shot, meaning a segment of vaccinated people don’t support the move.

More importantly — and predictably — the unvaccinated are adamantly opposed. The CNN poll found only 3% of Republicans who have not had the vaccine support the workplace requirement. That matters because those are the people we’re desperately trying to coax into changing their views.

And the most recent Axios poll showed that opposition had been softening, dropping to its lowest level to date.

I’m not suggesting there’s nothing that can be done to move the needle on vaccinations.

Most of the measures the Biden administration has taken are proper and make sense — like using Medicare and Medicaid funding as leverage to get health care facilities to require vaccines, especially long-term care facilities where Utah is still seeing an unacceptable number of outbreaks.

He was right to require military personnel, contractors and federal employees to get vaccinated.

The White House could use federal money to pressure more colleges and universities to mandate vaccines on campus and to boost the lagging vaccination rate among young people. And it could easily require passengers on airlines to show a vaccine card or a negative test.

None of it would solve the problem and any of them are going to take time to implement and start showing benefits. I get that Biden doesn’t want — to use a distinctly Bidenesque word — mollycoddle these people anymore and maybe the gambit will work. We should hope it does.

But we need to consider who those unvaccinated people are that we need to reach. They have held out this long and having Joe Biden, of all people, tell them (as they see it) they have to put something in their body they don’t want will further politicize a medical issue and add to the cultish fervor of those who have thus far been more than willing to endanger those around them.