When even Dr. Fauci feels defeated, you know you’re in trouble. “Pure persuasion? I think we’ve sort of run out of options,” President Biden’s chief medical adviser recently lamented to The New York Times amid stalling national COVID vaccination and booster rates. This despite record-shattering caseloads caused by the Omicron variant and resulting burdens on our gassed healthcare corps, not to mention a spike in child hospitalizations.
I understand Dr. Fauci’s frustration, particularly if viewed through the partisan lens articulated earlier in the same Times piece about how “surveys have shown” that the “remaining ranks of unvaccinated Americans steadfastly opposed to getting a shot tend to be younger, whiter and more Republican than those who have received the vaccine or are still considering one.”
Over the past year, I have spoken face to face with thousands of unvaccinated Americans, and very few of them have identified as Republican or white. And I can guarantee that virtually none of them has ever participated in a Gallup poll or Pew research study. I can also attest that there has been no significant investment made in compelling these communities to get vaccinated beyond incentives and mandates that, while brutishly effective, deepen distrust of government’s intentions and widen the disconnect between everyday people and the agencies assigned to their welfare.
It was almost precisely 12 calendar months ago that I stood on a freezing corner of Route 119 and Route 100 in White Plains, telling a skeleton Fox 5 news crew about how a nascent, all-volunteer campaign I was a part of called Greenburgh Covid Angels—initiated by Town of Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner and chaired by community activist and retired clinician Dr. Carol Allen—aspired to help vulnerable seniors navigate the early rollout of online vaccine scheduling. The effort was a success, assisting more than 4,000 older, immobile and homebound residents of lower Westchester County (think Mt. Vernon up to Peekskill) make appointments, successfully receive their first and second doses, and feel more at ease about a very stressful and dysfunctional process. Platitudes from high-ranking state officials and affirming media coverage both accelerated what was possible and served as its own reward for our collective efforts.
By late March, Supervisor Feiner correctly assessed that the next stage would be persuading those reluctant to receive their vaccine. Based on my experience with the Covid Angels, as well as a 20-year career in investigative journalism and communications, I volunteered to help organize what quickly spun off as its own volunteer-driven effort: #VaxUpWestchester. But it was clear almost immediately that our mission was harder to articulate to the public, to the media, to potential stakeholders, elected officials and would-be champions. It was less about answering the call from those clamoring for help than mobilizing to combat misinformation and lagging vaccination rates in the very municipalities that were hardest hit by the coronavirus throughout 2020; neighborhoods whose residents were, nevertheless, largely wary of preventative medicine that felt as novel as the virus itself.
Over the past nine months, #VaxUpWestchester—in allyship with dozens of selfless partners, from Ossining EMS and Dr. Lawrence Neshiwat to Narayan Pharmacy and Peekskill NAACP—has worked tirelessly in towns and cities including Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Elmsford, Ossining, and Peekskill to educate untold numbers of overwhelmed and fearful members of our broader community, ultimately facilitating convenient vaccination at locations ranging from affordable-housing complexes to car-wash parking lots for well over 1,000 individuals who were otherwise reticent or resigned to it being inaccessible. Every volunteer who helped us design a flyer, update our website, engage residents at a clinic, canvas an area with materials, answer people’s concerns and queries, or put doses into arms had competing priorities: family, full-time jobs, etc. But we got it done, and keep getting it done.
Yet here we are—tripping over each other at pop-up test-kit distribution sites, frantically calling pharmacies in vain about PCR swabs, debating the ethics of locking down versus living our lives, and looking for someone to blame for a painful pandemic that seems to swim against the tide of our strongest defenses.
The truth is that for all the heroism and humanity I’ve observed over the past year, I’ve been duly hardened by the lack of imagination from governance. Contrary to Dr. Fauci’s hunch, we have not exhausted every nuance of persuasion. At the highest levels, our leadership has responded to persistent skepticism about everything from the virus’s origins to the vaccine’s usefulness in the face of rising breakthrough cases with expensive, multimedia ad campaigns that tend to rouse conspiracy theorists more than convert the hesitant.
My own conversations with nearly every influential legislator in my region have led to tacit endorsements of our work but little to nothing in the way of concrete support. For those seeking reelection, there was a clear preference for not merely privileging cherrypicked statistics (e.g. X percentage of people over age X have received at least one dose as of X date), but hoping they would serve as the rising tide—a kind of trickle-down-theory wishful thinking that’s simply inapplicable to an epidemiological crisis.
Invaluable state-run testing sites, like one that became operational outside the Mt. Vernon Neighborhood Health Center last April, were shut down at some point between Delta’s peak and Omicron’s emergence, even though they were a vital bulwark against further illness in zip codes with stagnant vaccination rates. Bold new endeavors, like then Governor Cuomo’s July proclamation that the state would underwrite more than 1,000 paid public-health fellowships to help overcome COVID and future pandemics, have been tied up in red tape for months. Some portion of American Rescue Plan funds earmarked at the town and county level has effectively been squandered on giveaways and gift cards—a good number of which require savvy with smartphones and apps—that serve no practical need or benefit for many still holding out. (They also set cynical expectations ahead of the next epidemic without leaving folks with more to think about.) And our public schools continue to function on a patchwork wait-and-see system of taking direction and awaiting reinforcements from county departments of health, who answer to the state, which answers to federal issuance.
No one’s naive about the moving parts of making policy and meting out resources, nor the calculus of trying to keep one’s seat so they can at least remain at the table, but from the federal level on down, there has been quite a bit of hedging. What’s best for public safety has withered under consideration about what’s politically tenable and survivable. As Omicron bears down, it feels as if self-preservation has finally superseded common sense. Whether leadership takes cues from the public or vice versa in this case is a genuine chicken-egg conundrum. But regardless of how you vote or who was in our highest office when the virus first spread versus today, the buck stops in the same place. And we’re stuck in place, feeling helpless.
But what I can do is this: I can urge anyone who has the luxury of laying low and limiting contact outside their household during this delirious Omicron wave to do so. We’ve all done it before with less on the line. Don’t convince yourself it’s a mild strain and we’re all going to get it. Now is the worst possible moment for bad ethical math. More cases in the aggregate ultimately means more people of all ages and vulnerabilities falling ill and requiring hospitalization. That in turn once again de-prioritizes care for non-COVID patients, along with putting our healthcare workers at greater risk of exposure, compounding their collective fatigue and trauma. It leads to more tragic separation of loved ones, unable to enter care facilities to see their spouses, children, and parents. It prolongs the terrible ordeal of disrupted education and development that has scarred our kids, and exacerbates our national mental-health crisis far more seriously than another brief period of voluntary scaling back our extracurricular activities. If nothing else, remember that the more this thing spreads, the more likely a new and preventable and potent variant takes hold. We can’t assign blame to anyone but ourselves.
And whether it’s someone in a position of political influence or simply a family of four trying to get through this the best they can, we can’t content ourselves with the idea that there are siloed camps of do-gooders and done-nothings. The truth is none of us fits neatly into either category, and our pretenses solve nothing. Neither does forgetting that all Americans right now are scared and traumatized and easily triggered or misled. All due respect to Dr. Fauci, but I don’t think we’ve begun to do the kind of incisive social work needed to help move this boulder up the hill. I also am not sure we have the will.