THROUGHOUT THE COVID-19 pandemic, two big data points have stood out as indicators of where things stand: The level of infections and sickness and the trendline showing where things are heading. Infections and hospitalizations may be way down from their peak, but there is plenty of reason for worry about the trajectory of the pandemic.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Anthony Fauci stated bluntly on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday.
The twin culprits: the Delta variant of the virus, which is proving to be far more contagious than the original coronavirus that hit the US, and continued vaccine resistance, with more than 40 percent of the eligible population of US residents 12 and older still not inoculated against COVID.
The New York Times reported yesterday that fears of a COVID resurgence seem to be prompting some to finally roll up their sleeves, with more than half a million people getting vaccinated on a single day last week. The “reluctant, the anxious, the procrastinating” is how the paper described those who are not unalterably set against getting vaccinated but had put off until now taking the one step health experts say can put the brakes on the pandemic.
In Massachusetts, Provincetown seems to be the canary in the COVID resurgence coal mine, with a cluster of cases there prompting the resort town to reimpose masking recommendations. Meanwhile, in another sign that the pandemic is far from over, city officials announced recently that all public school students in Boston will be required to wear masks this fall. It’s raising questions about whether a broader return to masking mandates is in order.
The state has the second highest vaccination rate in the country, with more than 62 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated. But that still leaves a lot of people unprotected from the highly transmissible Delta variant.
While public health officials and elected leaders here, from Gov. Charlie Baker down to mayors and city councilors, have been on an all-out campaign to encourage residents to get vaccinated, those messages have to compete with well-oiled misinformation campaigns and wild rumors that continue to find a receptive audience across the country.
In Mattapan, the Boston neighborhood with the lowest vaccination rate, at 39.9 percent, public health workers are colliding head-on with that dangerous messaging mishugas.
Globe columnist Marcela Garcia says the neighborhood’s large Haitian population has been particularly vulnerable to vaccine misinformation. The director of a local nonprofit there told her of a Haitian immigrant who showed her a WhatsApp video of a radio host warning listeners that “God does not want them to take the COVID-19 vaccine.” If they do, the host warns, they’ll develop a rare disease within a year or be turned into an animal.
If people buy into such warnings, it’s pretty hard to reason with them about the danger of COVID. Health officials are pushing ahead, with a focus on having trusted leaders in low-vaccination communities leading the charge.
With unvaccinated people now accounting for more than 97 percent of COVID hospitalizations in the US, public health officials have sought to further emphasize the most important thing people can do to combat the deadly virus by describing the current phase as the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
While concern about equity in vaccine access dominated the early rollout of COVID vaccines in Massachusetts, that is no longer a problem, with plenty of vaccine available and community sites in places like Mattapan ready to administer. The challenge in boosting vaccination rates among those who have held out until now is convincing them that their lives — and those of their loved ones — depend on it.