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OPINION

The unnecessary death march of the unvaccinated

COVID-19 vaccines have proved wildly effective. For various reasons, millions remain unprotected.

Anti-vaccine protesters rallied outside Houston Methodist Hospital on June 26.
Anti-vaccine protesters rallied outside Houston Methodist Hospital on June 26.MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

Last month, COVID-19 killed 130 people in Maryland, all unvaccinated. At least 160 children and adults at a Texas church summer camp tested positive for coronavirus; only six of those infected were vaccinated. Hospitals in Springfield, Mo., are so overwhelmed with cases among the unvaccinated that they’ve run out of ventilators and are transferring some patients to other parts of the state.

President Biden is begging Americans to “please get vaccinated now.”

“It works, it’s free, it’s never been easier,” he said Tuesday. “It’s never been more important. Do it now for yourself and the people you care about — for your neighborhood, for your country. It sounds corny, but it’s a patriotic thing to do.”

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COVID-19 vaccination rates have stalled. Appeals to patriotism won’t work. Incentives ranging from gift cards to “vax lotteries” have failed. In Massachusetts, less than half of those eligible for the state’s first “VaxMillions” lottery on July 26 have registered.

If saving your own life and the lives of loved ones isn’t enough incentive to get vaccinated, then free weed, as Washington state has promised residents who get vaccinated by July 12, was never going to make a difference. After all the progress made, a needlessly prolonged pandemic puts everyone at risk — including those who’ve already submitted to the needle’s pinch.

According to a Georgetown University study, five clusters with low vaccination rates, most of them in the South and Midwest, are fueling new COVID-19 cases. About 15 million people live in these areas where the fully vaccinated rate is a dismal 28 percent of all people. Nationwide, the vaccination rate is 48 percent — better, but not great.

Scientists fear the unvaccinated clusters could be breeding grounds for even deadlier COVID-19 variants.

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“We know that if you give the virus the opportunity to circulate and replicate, you give it the opportunity to generate more variants,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CNN.

That’s already happened with the highly contagious Delta variant responsible for many of the recent cases. “The 2020 version of COVID-19 on steroids” is how Andy Slavitt, a former senior adviser to Biden’s COVID response team, described the variant. “Fortunately, unlike 2020, we actually have a tool that stops the Delta variant in its tracks: It’s called a vaccine.”

Why people aren’t getting vaccinated varies. Among Black and Latinx people, rates have improved but still lag. Based on centuries of racist mistreatment that continues to this day, medical mistrust remains an issue. Even more important is access. Failing to put an emphasis on disproportionately affected communities, early rollouts didn’t meet people where they are in their communities, such as offering hours to accommodate inflexible work schedules.

Rapper Juvenile is trying to encourage some of his fans to get vaccinated. Teaming up with BLK, a dating app, he retooled his hip-hop classic “Back That (Thang) Up” into a pro-vaccine anthem, “Vax That Thang Up,” with Mannie Fresh and Mia X:

Girl, you looks good, won’t you vax that thang up

You’s a handsome young brother, won’t you vax that thang up

Juvenile, who said he is vaccinated, told CNN, “I felt like it was a great way to put awareness out there, especially for people like me and people that look like me.”

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Unfortunately, that song is unlikely to remove the greatest hurdle to herd immunity. Whether it was masking up and socially distancing or now is getting vaccinated, political polarization has been the virus’s most compliant vector. With distrust and disinformation sown by Fox News and extremist GOP legislators, Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to get vaccinated. Many still cling to false beliefs first spurred by former President Trump that COVID-19′s threat is exaggerated or that they are not vulnerable.

If they could, the four million killed worldwide and the more than 600,000 dead Americans would say otherwise.

A staff member for City Councilwoman Sheila Tyson of Birmingham, Ala., speaks to a resident during a door-knocking outreach effort to inform people about COVID-19 vaccinations.
A staff member for City Councilwoman Sheila Tyson of Birmingham, Ala., speaks to a resident during a door-knocking outreach effort to inform people about COVID-19 vaccinations.ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP via Getty Images

Especially in counties that voted for Donald Trump, vaccination rates are dire, and in this round more young people are getting infected and sick. In 24 states, cases are up at least 10 percent; inevitably, deaths will follow that trend.

What I would have given for a vaccine during the first pandemic of my lifetime — AIDS. Instead of settling into careers and relationships, my friends were writing wills and planning funerals. Despite a cocktail of drugs that changed AIDS from a probable death sentence into a chronic but manageable disease, there is still no vaccine 40 years after the first cases garnered public attention.

Having three effective COVID-19 vaccines has altered the lives of millions.

Yet with stagnant vaccination rates, we’re witnessing a march of unnecessary infection, sickness, and death. It doesn’t need to happen. Whether it comes from the president, Juvenile, your pastor, or best friend, the lifesaving message is the same — to quell this devastating pandemic, everyone needs to vax that thang up.

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Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.