As the more contagious Delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, health experts and elected officials are sounding the warning: People who remain unvaccinated need to get vaccinated.
Alabama, with only 33.7% of residents fully vaccinated, ranks last, behind not only the other 49 states and the District of Columbia, but also territories like Guam, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands, according to Google’s data tracker, which relies largely on figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As Alabama hospitals again begin to fill with COVID patients, Dr. Donald Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, calls it a “self-inflicted wound.”
Currently, state hospitals are treating roughly 500 COVID patients, far fewer than January’s peak of 3,000, before widespread vaccinations became available, but up substantially from the 166 hospitalizations a month ago.
Williamson estimates that if everyone eligible were vaccinated, the number of hospitalized COVID patients would be about 50.
“This is the plague of our generation, and certainly of our lifetime. And now it could be so easily averted, but we’re failing to do that,” he said.
Data indicates there is a partisan divide between U.S. counties with high vaccination rates and those with low rates. Counties with high rates voted for Joe Biden for president, while those with low vaccination rates overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump.
The disparity has not been lost even among some of the former president’s most vocal supporters.
During a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing Tuesday in Washington, freshman U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville suggested Alabama’s low vaccination rate might improve if former President Donald Trump were given more credit for developing the program to fight COVID-19.
“I understand exactly what you’re saying, senator, and that’s a very appropriate question that I’m pleased to answer,” Dr. Anthony Fauci responded. “Having been present through the last year … I can tell you that no doubt the former administration deserves a considerable amount of credit for the effort that was put into Operation Warp Speed, that was able to allow not only the rapid development and testing, but also the implementation of the vaccine.”
Trump himself has touted the vaccines formulated on his watch.
“I would recommend it,” Trump said during a March interview on Fox News. “And I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly. But again, we have our freedoms and we have to live by that and I agree with that also. But it is a great vaccine. It is a safe vaccine and it is something that works.”
That Trump has been promoting vaccinations for months casts some doubt on a causal relationship between voting for Trump and vaccine hesitancy. Perhaps, instead, both stem from a third factor: distrust of experts.
Alabama has a long history of that, summed up by former Gov. George Wallace’s disdain for “pointy-headed bureaucrats riding to work on a bike in their three-piece suits with a peanut butter sandwich in their briefcase.” To many, Fauci is just another pointy-headed intellectual.
So, who might vaccine-hesitant Alabamians trust? Former Auburn football coach Tuberville is one. Current Alabama football coach Nick Saban is another, but Saban has been promoting vaccinations for months, with apparently little success.
On Wednesday, Saban said about 90% of his football team has been vaccinated. That came as the SEC announced it won’t reschedule any games this season due to COVID outbreaks. If a team has an outbreak and can’t play, they must forfeit.
Maybe SEC football’s actions will speak louder than words when it comes to overcoming vaccine hesitancy.