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Naomi Ishisaka: Stop ostracizing the unvaccinated

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Naomi Ishisaka

"A pandemic of the unvaccinated."

That's the misguided and dangerous statement that took hold last week nationwide as President Joe Biden and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky used it to describe the latest phase of the pandemic, with Biden going so far as to say, "Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated."

Suddenly, headlines and cable TV news chyrons all screamed the pithy sound bite.

On its face it seems logical. Cases among unvaccinated people are soaring, and more than 99% of deaths are now among the unvaccinated. COVID-19 cases overall nearly tripled in the past few weeks.

It's tempting for a weary and frustrated vaccinated public to say "well, those people are getting what they deserve." Vaccines are plentiful in the U.S. and it might seem like unvaccinated people are making their own beds with their refusal to accept science.

But it's not that simple and to oversimplify by calling it a "pandemic of the unvaccinated" will only make the problem worse.

I think for many, unvaccinated people are perceived to be white MAGA supporters who listen to conservative media telling them that vaccines are dangerous and that COVID-19 is a hoax. Yet that perception does not include the Black and Latino people who lag in vaccination rates; it also fails to consider the wider range of people who are unvaccinated or unable to get protection from vaccines.

If we accept the idea that it's now just a "pandemic of the unvaccinated" and those smart enough to get vaccinated should be able to go back to pre-pandemic life and too bad for everyone else, we are also leaving behind groups like all children under 12 who do not yet have access to vaccines; teens who remain unvaccinated; immunocompromised people who are not seeing immune response from vaccines; as well as communities of color who are hit hardest by the virus. 

Calling it a "pandemic of the unvaccinated" also ignores the fact that the unvaccinated groups are intrinsically connected to the rest of the vaccinated population. A vaccinated parent's level of COVID-19 mitigation has a direct impact on their child's ability to stay safe, for example. An unvaccinated health care worker can have a direct impact on an immunocompromised patient.

By ending almost all mitigation efforts — such as masking and distancing — we effectively hung up the "mission accomplished" banner before the mission was close to accomplished.

Now the delta variant is running rampant and cities like Los Angeles are reinstituting mask mandates to try to combat the surge. Early evidence is suggesting that people infected with the delta variant may carry 1,000 times more virus than the original virus. Even more concerning, in Los Angeles County, 20% of COVID-19 cases in June were in vaccinated people, though it's critical to note, the vaccine still protects against serious illness and death.

Pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Rhea Boyd said in a July 17 tweet that we need to resist the urge to flatten the motivations of the unvaccinated, writing: "'The unvaccinated' are not a monolith of defectors. They are people our health care system has long underserved — Black folks, rural folks, un and un/under insured folks and young folks." 

This crisis is not over and it's not just half the population's problem. We are in it together and must fight it together, if we hope to ever see the end of this long, terrible nightmare.

Naomi Ishisaka is a columnist for The Seattle Times.

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