MACHIAS, Maine — It was an exchange that left me both edified and discouraged. Edified because it opened a window into a certain conspiratorialist mind-set — and discouraged that someone could maintain those views in light of the facts.
As part of a sample-public-sentiment interviewing trip up the coast of Downeast Maine, I stopped in Machias to interview some area residents in the seat of sprawling Washington County, home to many of Maine’s blueberry barrens.
My first question: Are you vaccinated? Most of those I spoke with professed to be. But the few who weren’t didn’t seem likely to change their status — or their minds.
One example was a wiry late-30s man who said he sometimes worked as a miner in Alaska and other times taught self-defense. A self-described “constitutionalist,” he gave “Joe” as his first name and declined to offer a surname.
“I have no interest in a vaccine,” he told me.
Why not? For one thing, he thought he had probably already had COVID-19. For another, he considered the coronavirus pandemic “just another flu” — and people die from the flu every year, he noted.
But not more than 700,000 people (714,000 to be more precise), I noted. (Just as a point of comparison, in the 2018-19 flu season — the last before COVID-19 — about 28,000 Americans perished from the flu. In the 2017-18 flu season, one of the most severe in decades, some 80,000 deaths were attributed to the flu. So the 20 or so months of the pandemic have been more than six times as deadly as the last two flu seasons combined.)
“That’s the whole world,” he replied.
No, actually, just the United States. (At least 4.8 million have died globally.) Joe seemed surprised — but it didn’t alter his view.
The only reason so much was being made of COVID-19 was that it was a way to increase the government’s power, he said. But why would the government want to exercise that kind of power?
Joe answered with a question.
“Why would someone shut a country down over something that only kills 2 percent” of those who contract it? he countered.
Instead of listing the various sound epidemiological reasons to try to contain the pandemic, I returned to my previous question. Why would government officials hype the pandemic into something it’s not? How did that help them? That question seemed not to have occurred to him.
“I don’t know,” he conceded. Then an idea struck him.
“To make guys like them wear masks,” he said, gesturing behind me to where two Hannaford managers were waiting for our conversation to end so they could tell me I was in violation of their no-solicitation-on-store-premises policy.
Joe wasn’t the only vaccine skeptic I encountered. In Ellsworth, in Hancock Country, 55-year-old Tina Bouffard, an antique collector who said she tried to avoid the news and “live inside my own little bubble of happiness,” declined to give her vaccine status, but also asserted that COVID-19 “was just another flu.”
“I know I shouldn’t say that,” she continued. “A lot of people lost loved ones.”
One who had was 80-year-old Dennis Middleswart, a retired pipefitter in Belmont.
“I lost a brother” to COVID, he said. A brother he didn’t get to see after he fell ill. Dennis is fully vaccinated.
In Lubec, the easternmost town in the United States, 70-something Thomas Dean, who moved north from Brighton, Mass., more than a decade ago and now “slings beer” at a local pub, declined to answer the vaccination query because he considered it a request for medical information. But he did say that he considered COVID-19 “real and dangerous.”
But of the several dozen people I talked to, everyone else said they were vaccinated. (There were plenty of people who declined an interview request with a quick shake of the head or a laconic, “I’m good, thanks.”)
That said, almost everyone I talked to had acquaintances who hadn’t gotten inoculated. One middle-aged couple expressed exasperation at unspecified young people they knew who thought they were invincible and so didn’t feel the need to get vaccinated.
Andrea Poulos, 64, a nurse and Lubec coffee-and gift-shop owner, said that as a nurse, she knew the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweighed the risks. Still, she has been unable to persuade her sister.
“She believes Bill Gates is putting microfibers in the vaccine to track her,” she said. The notion that Gates wants to install microchips in people is a popular conspiracy theory. Poulos noted with resigned amusement that her sibling can’t give a good reason for why Gates would want to keep tabs on her.
Down near the Lubec harbor, 71-year-old Rusty Jackson, a retired and transplanted Floridian who does some recreational lobstering, said he was vaccinated not just for COVID-19 but for the flu as well. Asked for his view on vaccine mandates, he had this to say:
“I am OK with them. They are one of the few tools we have to get this under control.”
But though they are both vaccinated, John Hoak, 58, and his wife, Cindy, 52, visiting Lubec from Cambridge, a small town about 25 miles northeast of Skowhegan, raised concerns about the secondary effects vaccine mandates were having on workplaces by forcing the departure of unvaccinated workers.
John, a one-time construction worker turned emergency medical technician, said his organization is now frequently short-staffed because unvaccinated EMTs had left, while Cindy, a retail worker, noted that their daughter, an RN, was seeing the remaining nursing staff stretched thin at the hospital system where she worked. They both felt that a frequent testing requirement could serve as an alternative to vaccine mandates.
Overall, my takeaway from my coastal Maine travels was that most people had responded sensibly to the pandemic and gotten vaccinated — but that the subset that hadn’t will be hard to reach with either facts or reason. And harder still to sway.