The actions of Republican governors—like Texas’ Greg Abbott or Mississippi’s Tate Reeves—who are outlawing mask mandates and insisting that businesses rush back to full capacity, are an obvious threat to public health and deft both medical advice and common sense. However, they may not be the worst thing that Republicans are doing to extend the pandemic in the United States and bring a fourth wave of disease and deaths.

In the last week, President Joe Biden moved up the clock on providing vaccines to America. When Biden came into office, not enough vaccines had been secured to provide for all American adults. Biden moved quickly to change that, and by the end of February, announced that vaccines would be available by the end of July. Then, after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine gained approval, Biden moved again, using the Defense Production Act to secure additional manufacturing from Merck and accelerate other vaccine deliveries. As a result, Biden announced on Tuesday that enough vaccine for all American adults would be available by the end of May; enough vaccine for 75% of adults should be available by April.

All of that rightly has many Americans feeling the end is in sight. After a seemingly endless year of horrors in which death from COVID-19 has become so common that 2,000 Americans dying each day doesn’t even merit a mention on national news, there seems to be a genuine light at the end of this dark tunnel. But that light could still be an oncoming train, as it’s not just Republican governors doing everything they can to throw a spanner into the works.

What other Republicans are doing could be worse.

For weeks, polling results from Civiqs have shown that there are some groups in America still don’t intend to be vaccinated. When the first polls were taken back in November, that included 65% of Black people, who were either unsure about the vaccine or determined not to take it. Considering the long history of the United States government either treating the Black population like experimental subjects, or failing to collect data on Black patients when conducting medical research, that apprehension was understandable. Pile on the speed with which these vaccines were developed, and a year in which the White House provided a steady stream of quackery (hydroxychloroquine!) or simple lies (“soon be down to zero!”), and it’s a wonder that the numbers were not higher.

But with Biden in office, science clearly back in vogue at the White House, and a regular, reasoned message on COVID-19, the number of Black Americans who intend to take the vaccine has steadily improved. That 65% of unsure/no response in polling back in November dropped to 36% by the end of January. It’s currently at 27%. 

It’s now white Americans who stand in the way of vaccine rollout. Back in November, 27% of white Americans placed themselves in the solidly anti-vax “no” category. That number hasn’t changed in the last four months. The number who are “unsure” has declined, but still stands at 11%. That means that over a third of white American adults have not committed to getting the vaccine. That reversal is also visible among those saying “yes” to the vaccine. The number of Black Americans saying that yes, they will get vaccinated, is now 15% higher than it is for white Americans.

Before moving on from the racial aspect of this issue, it’s also important to note that, despite having a higher desire for the vaccine than white Americans, when it comes to actually being vaccinated, Black Americans are running well behind. Why? Because vaccine distribution continues to be left to the states, where governors favor white rural areas and suburbs. Vaccine has been handed out as a reward to counties that voted big for Republican governors, and as a favor to big-money donors. Meanwhile, areas with higher Black populations have been shortchanged. That’s before factoring in a system where actually getting that vaccine is often dependent on good internet access.

How did it happen that white Americans moved into Camp Anti-Vax in such numbers? It’s not hard to figure out. Because the difference is much starker when political parties are added to the filter. Fully 41% of Republicans are a solid “no” on the vaccine. Another 15% are unsure. Compare that to Democrats where just 5% are no and 7% are unsure. White Democrats are even more likely that Black Democrats to say “yes” to vaccine.

That 44% difference on accepting a vaccine means that Republicans have a bigger difference with Democrats on this issue than they do on multiple major issues. Just as happened with masks, being vaccinated for COVID-19 has become an issue so politicized, that a majority of Republicans are unwilling to take a basic step to protect themselves from a deadly disease. Refusing vaccination has become another inexplicable shibboleth of the right.

The overall result of this is that a quarter of all American adults are currently a “no” on COVID-19 vaccination, and another 11% are unsure. So even as President Biden makes vaccine available to every American adult, it seems entirely possible that a third of those adults will pass. Add in those under 18, and over 40% of Americans will still not be vaccinated, even when vaccine is readily available.

That’s a formula that makes it almost inevitable that COVID-19 won’t go away. The numbers will certainly drop, but the disease will stick around, rumbling through the remaining population as an endemic infection, coughing up new variants and constantly threating to become evasive of vaccines or capable of reinfecting those who have already suffered through a previous bout. It means that thousands more will die. It means that millions more will be subject to the debilitating long term effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection. 

And if that seems like a lot to draw from a single poll, Pew Research looked at the same topic this week. Their findings tracked almost exactly with those of Civiqs.

“A majority of Black Americans (61%) now say they plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine or have already received one, up sharply from 42% who said they planned to get vaccinated in November. … Democrats are now 27 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say they plan to get, or have already received, a coronavirus vaccine (83% to 56%).”

Republican governors stripping away mask mandates and removing social distancing limits is an immediate threat to public health, but the anti-vax sentiment that has settled in among Republican voters may be the greater threat, especially over the long term.

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