End Flap: Get Stuck or Get the Stick

Sept. 27, 2021
In his monthly column, Senior Editor Pan Demetrakakes points out that when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, President Biden has stopped playing around.

There have been enough carrots around COVID vaccination. Now the feds are bringing out the sticks.

The pandemic could have been sputtering out by now, but it’s hanging around, thanks to a combination of the Delta variant and a lot of unforeseen resistance to the only viable way out: vaccination.

The rapid development of highly effective COVID vaccines is, in my opinion, the greatest achievement of medical science since HIV was transformed from a gruesome death sentence into a manageable medical condition. It’s at least as significant a blessing as the vaccines that eradicated polio. But there’s one huge difference.

I’m not quite old enough to remember this firsthand, but the polio vaccine was met by virtually all Americans, especially parents, with the only appropriate, reasonable reaction: nearly hysterical relief. Naysayers were dismissed as cranks and crackpots.

Fast-forward to today. Years of anti-vaccine propaganda and lies set up the tragedy – and it is nothing less – that we now see unfolding. At this writing, the United States is now in the midst of a surge in COVID infections that is approaching the peak levels seen in December. Almost all of the victims are unvaccinated.

The proportion of fully vaccinated American adults now stands at 53%, and it doesn’t look likely to move much. It’s a frustrating and dismaying situation, especially for the decision-makers at food processing companies, where COVID has taken a devastating toll: more than 75,000 workers have tested positive for COVID in U.S. food manufacturing plants, with more than 350 deaths, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network. The reasons are obvious: The work has to be done indoors, often shoulder-to-shoulder, by people who have to stand in the same place most of the day.

One would think that this situation would lead workers at those plants to be especially eager to protect themselves. But the overall vaccination rate at food plants, by all accounts, is the same or even a little worse than the national average.

So early in September, President Biden took decisive action, announcing a slew of federal measures to increase the vaccination rate. The most sweeping one was a requirement, through OSHA regulations, that companies with 100 or more employees require unvaccinated workers to submit to COVID testing weekly.

This is clearly meant to encourage them to get the vaccine, since taking the weekly test will be a nuisance, if their employer even allows that as an option.

Biden’s announcement drew the predictable backlash from a pack of abominably irresponsible politicians and journalists (almost all of them vaccinated) who don’t care how many people suffer and die, as long as they think they can score political points against Biden by fulminating against the “tyranny” of mask and vaccine mandates.

A more nuanced concern came from Geoff Freeman, CEO of the Consumer Brands Association. He noted that according to a recent poll, 58% of unvaccinated people said they wouldn’t work for an employer who requires vaccination. “We don’t know how the labor pool will react and that uncertainty is exacerbated by the myriad questions we have in the wake of yesterday’s announcement,” Freeman said in a statement. “Government must move at the speed of business, not allow critical questions to go unanswered and anxiety to fester as it takes weeks to offer detail.”

Well, Freeman’s concern may be more nuanced than, say, Tucker Carlson’s, but it’s just as misplaced. For one thing, 58% of the unvaccinated may tell a pollster they’ll quit their jobs before they get the vaccine, but when it comes right down to losing that paycheck, I think there will be a lot of defections.

By the same token, Biden has relieved food and beverage processors – who have been hit harder by COVID than almost any other industrial sector – from the responsibility of having to impose vaccine mandates themselves. That’s important, because at the time he made the announcement, Tyson Foods was the only major food company to have introduced a mandate for employees.

Tyson is an instructive example. It has the highest COVID totals of any single food company, with more than 12,000 cases and 39 deaths. As of early August, less than half of its workforce was fully vaccinated, leading management to announce the mandate.

This was no doubt an agonizing decision for Tyson. It shouldn’t have been any kind of decision at all. Vaccine mandates are a matter of public health; they’re too important to be left up to individuals, or individual companies. Good for Biden.

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