A RECENT GATHERING IN A QUALITY Inn ballroom in rural Bradley, Illinois, offered a glimpse—terrifying to most epidemiologists, thrilling to longtime vaccine “safety” activists—of America’s growing political divide over vaccinations and its implications for the nation’s health. Ostensibly, the meeting was a community forum about employer mandates for COVID vaccines that the organizer expected to draw 80 people in this overwhelmingly Republican exurb of Chicago. Instead, more than 300 people piled in, mostly to complain about the notion that anyone—a boss, a school, a government—could force them to take any vaccines at all. As one Libertarian county commissioner told the crowd: “I will fight for your right to believe in whatever god, medicine or way of life you choose.”
The event is being replicated in some form or another in cities and towns across America, emblematic of a growing grassroots movement of people who believe that vaccine mandates—for COVID, yes, but increasingly for other diseases as well—are an affront to their personal freedom. That represents a marked shift from pre-pandemic times, when vaccine opponents typically based their reasoning on medical concerns and were largely comprised of a few religious sects and a small number of left-leaning activists seeking explanations for rising rates of autism. As the anti-vaxx-mandate movement gains political traction, particularly on the right, medical experts fear it could not only cripple efforts to eradicate COVID but could also lead to a surge in long-conquered diseases, from mumps to whooping cough to smallpox.
“There are some more conservative states where we are likely to see other non-COVID vaccine mandates under attack, and it is very worrisome,” says Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “If we have some of these pediatric infectious diseases come back, it will be horrific.”
Even before President Joe Biden’s September 9 announcement of a litany of aggressive COVID vaccine mandates—covering an estimated 100 million Americans, including federal health workers and companies with more than 100 employees—evidence of changes in policy and sentiment toward such rules was cropping up, led by the right. This summer the Tennessee Department of Health, reportedly pushed by GOP lawmakers, directed its staffers to stop conducting “proactive outreach regarding routine vaccinations,” including those for childhood diseases, HPV and influenza. Larry Elder, the top Republican vote-getter in the failed recall effort against California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, told the Los Angeles Times editorial board in August, “I don’t believe that the state should tell a parent whether or not a child should be vaccinated. That’s an intrusion of state power.” In Minnesota this month, the conservative group Action 4 Liberty, which boasts an email list of more than 100,000 recipients, began hammering a leading Republican candidate for governor for refusing to sign the group’s “Stop Vaccine Mandates” pledge.
“Those vaccines have had a long history of use, so there’s certainly data that suggests that they’re relatively safe,” the group’s president, Jake Duesenberg, tells Newsweek. “But it always has to be a choice of individuals. You can’t have government forcing that on us.”
In all, some 22 percent of Americans now identify as “anti-vaxxers,” defined as people who support vaccine refusal and “embrace the label as a form of social identity,” according to a report by researchers at Oklahoma State University, Texas A&M University and others, published in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities. Underscoring concerns of public health experts, the study also found identifying as an anti-vaxxer to be predictive of increased opposition to childhood vaccine requirements.
Meanwhile, signs are also mounting about the partisan nature of growing opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates, and the shift from medical to libertarian reasoning. Asked in a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation whether getting the COVID vaccine is a matter of “personal choice” or “part of everyone’s responsibility to protect the health of others,” more than 70 percent of Republicans saw it as a personal choice vs. just 27 percent of Democrats. And according to a Twitter analysis by Renee DiResta, research manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory, reported in The New York Times, even anti-vaxxers whose opposition in the pre-COVID era had been focused on concerns about autism and toxins are now evolving their messaging to talk about freedom and “vaccine choice.”
“The coalescing of previously distinct groups that are now more aligned on this issue of opposing vaccines is new,” says Douglas Opel, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of numerous papers on vaccine hesitancy among parents. “The politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine development and authorization process has been a concern of all of us on what that might mean for vaccine confidence and the sustainability of immunization programs generally.”
The Road to Here
UNTIL RECENTLY, MANDATES FOR VACCINATIONS— which mostly surface when parents try to enroll their children in daycare facilities or schools—were a relatively uncontroversial, routine part of preventing the spread of mostly vanquished infectious diseases. Every state has such mandates, and all but six allow exemptions for reasons of either religious or “personal belief.” In California, Connecticut, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia, only exemptions for medical reasons are acceptable.
Opposition to such mandates in the decades before COVID included the likes of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the actress Jenny McCarthy, both liberal skeptics of vaccine science who promoted theories about widespread vaccine side effects that have been aggressively debunked and dismissed by the medical community. When the country experienced outbreaks of diseases such as measles—an illness that in 2000 was declared eradicated in the U.S. by the World Health Organization—the overall numbers were in the dozens or hundreds, which is relatively small. In California, where a 2014 outbreak was traced to Disneyland, and New York, where surges in 2019 were connected to insular Orthodox Jewish communities, lawmakers quickly voted to eliminate the ability of parents to opt out of vaccinations for religious or personal reasons.
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