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Reaching the unreachable on vaccines

This current COVID-19 surge should have been avoidable. There are ways to keep it from getting worse.

Demonstrators at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital in Baytown, Texas, protest a policy that says hospital employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or lose their jobs. When their lawsuit failed, 153 staffers resigned or were fired.
Demonstrators at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital in Baytown, Texas, protest a policy that says hospital employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or lose their jobs. When their lawsuit failed, 153 staffers resigned or were fired.Yi-Chin Lee/Associated Press

After months in decline, coronavirus cases are rising again.

This was not inevitable, but the reason is sadly obvious: Not enough people are getting vaccinated. Despite the proven efficacy of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, the national rate of those fully vaccinated has stalled at around 48 percent — well short of the level needed to achieve herd immunity.

Driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant, cases in 46 states, including Massachusetts, have increased 10 to 50 percent in the past week. A Georgetown University study identified five clusters in the South and lower Midwest with low vaccination rates that account for much of this alarming surge. Nationwide, it’s being driven by people under age 50 who are the least likely to be vaccinated. With a return to the classroom looming, this could have serious consequences for children under 12 who remain ineligible to be vaccinated.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, the unvaccinated accounted for 99.5 percent of COVID-19 deaths last month. Gimmicks and incentives ranging from “VaxMillions” lotteries to “Joints for Jabs” offering free weed in Washington state haven’t boosted vaccination rates.


What does work are vaccine mandates.

Bruce Springsteen and Foo Fighters require proof of vaccination to attend their shows. On “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the audience is not only at full capacity, but also must prove they are fully vaccinated. In the corporate world, Morgan Stanley is one of the first companies with a vaccine mandate for all returning employees. Many colleges, including Boston University and Boston College, will have mandates for returning students in the fall; BC’s requirement also includes staff members


In the throes of a pandemic that has killed more than 607,000 Americans and more than 4 million people worldwide, there’s nothing intrusive about such diligence. Mandates are effective.

When the Houston Methodist system became the first hospital nationwide to announce a vaccine mandate for its workers, a group of staffers sued. When their lawsuit failed, 153 of them resigned or were fired. According to Bloomberg News, the hospital system’s vaccination rate rose from 85 percent to 100 percent, except for 600 exempted for medical or religious reasons.

Yet with the kind of deep tribalism that has developed around vaccines (not unlike the hardcore anti-maskers), there’s bound to be a backlash to mandates for vaccinations. In addition to mandates, governments and health care providers will also need to borrow from research on how to change the minds of people for whom resistance to vaccines has become central to their identity.

In a New York Times essay earlier this year, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, wrote that “preaching” to or “prosecuting” those with a difference of opinion not only fails to change minds but may actually strengthen people’s resistance.

“Much as a vaccine inoculates the physical immune system against a virus, the act of resistance fortifies the psychological immune system,” Grant wrote. “Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against future attempts at influence, making people more certain of their own opinions and more ready to rebut alternatives.”


That’s where trusted community members — especially primary care physicians, religious leaders, even barbers and beauticians — can play a crucial role. The most resistant who have probably tuned out medical or political officials might be open to a nonjudgmental conversation about health and vaccines from someone whose opinion they already respect.

On a recent CNN segment, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the network’s chief medical correspondent, paraphrased an observation from Dr. Barney Graham, the National Institutes of Health’s deputy director. “He said people keep thinking that the country is going to be split into vaccinated and unvaccinated. The road we’re on now is that the country gets split into vaccinated and infected.”

It doesn’t have to happen.

Last spring when many seemed eager to get vaccinated, we believed we would enjoy a summer to remember doing the things we love with family and friends. Unless more aggressive steps to get people vaccinated are taken, too many Americans may instead find themselves remembering these months of the pandemic for all the wrong reasons.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated who was covered by Boston College’s mandatory vaccination policy. The policy includes staff members.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.