So you should really get it by now. You should get how it works and how it spreads and, especially in the moment, why the United States is in a relatively favorable position. After all, more than a quarter of the country has now been vaccinated against the virus, a number totaling in the tens of millions. We are slowly nearing a point at which the virus won’t be able to spread easily because infected people will encounter so few people still susceptible to it.
If you’re reading this, you should understand that by now. You should get why vaccinations are useful and what their intent is, even if you’re still concerned about getting one. It’s not complicated: If you lock more doors and windows, it’s harder for a thief to get into your house.
Yet this is still baffling to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), or so he told an interviewer. As Forbes reported Friday, he recently told a radio host that he saw “no reason to be pushing vaccines on people.”
“If you have a vaccine, quite honestly, what do you care if your neighbor has one or not?” he asked rhetorically.
There are a few answers to that, as it turns out. One is that maybe you don’t want your neighbor to die. Perhaps the senator has a less cordial relationship with his neighbors than I do; he wouldn’t be the only one. Another answer is that if his neighbor gets sick and further infects other people, those are lost hours of employment that could, in the aggregate, hurt the economy. That neighbor could wind up in the hospital emergency room, filling a bed that someone who’d been vaccinated might need, like after a car accident.
A third answer to Johnson’s question is that some people can’t get the vaccine or haven’t gotten it yet, and if your neighbor gets the vaccine, that closes another door to the virus. Johnson is a grandparent to two young grandchildren. The more of their neighbors who go unvaccinated, the more likely it is that those kids might contract the virus and the disease it causes, covid-19. Sure, it’s far less deadly for little kids, but as a parent of two little kids myself, I can assure you I’d nonetheless prefer they not get sick regardless.
Let’s examine a scenario in Johnson’s hometown of Oshkosh, Wis. As of writing, the rate of new infections in Winnebago County is nine new infections per every 100,000 people per day. At the peak of infections in the county, the rate was near 130 new cases per 100,000 each day. About 3 in 10 residents of Winnebago County have already been fully vaccinated; 30,000 have also already had an infection.
Imagine there’s a 40-table restaurant in Oshkosh. Use the sliders below to model a scenario in which those tables are filled (depending on the local capacity limits) and the risks posed depending on how many people are or aren’t vaccinated. On occasion, the simulation will throw an infected person into the mix. (Hit the “re-randomize” button to see it happen.)
This isn’t rocket science. The more people who are vaccinated, the less opportunity the virus has to spread in this space. There are other factors, too, of course: the ventilation in the restaurant and the extent to which people cover their faces when (presumably) they’re eating. But the point is fairly obvious: more vaccinations means lower likelihood of new infections — including for kids too young to be vaccinated.
After the Forbes report came out, Johnson tried to clarify his position on Twitter.
“It is a legitimate question,” he wrote, “as to whether people at very low risk of suffering serious illness from Covid, particularly the young and healthy, should be encouraged to take a vaccine that is being administered under an Emergency Use Authorization.”
The insinuation that there’s something potentially risky about the vaccine because it was authorized under an emergency-use authority is somewhat hard to take at face value, given that Johnson was defending the use of hydroxychloroquine — at one point similarly authorized — last year. And not just in March and April of last year, but last November, after numerous studies undercut the idea that it offered a significant benefit. The benefits of the coronavirus vaccines, by contrast, are by now obvious.
But again, there’s that key question: Why is the vaccine encouraged? And the answer, again, is to keep people from being infected by the virus.
One thing we’ve learned over the past year is that some people who thought they were “young and healthy” nonetheless succumbed to the virus. More than 44,000 people under 50 have been hospitalized with the virus. Thousands of others have had lingering effects from the illness for months. All of those people caught the virus from somewhere. It walked through some open door.
But you, gentle reader, knew this. You’ve been paying attention. And you’re not thinking about running for reelection in 2022.