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Catching up

SoVaNow.com / June 02, 2021


Apologies to everyone for my absence from this space for (checks calendar) the past two weeks. It’s been a busy stretch, what can I say. Let’s see what we can do today to get caught up on the news ....

***

You may remember reading in this newspaper that the Virginia Department of Health had made plans for a mobile vaccine van to travel to Lawrenceville, South Hill, Chase City and South Boston this week to drive up vaccination numbers around the Southside Health District (Brunswick, Mecklenburg and Halifax counties.) Our sister newspaper, the News & Record, covered the Saturday afternoon stopover at the Halifax County fairgrounds, learning that the goal with each mobile clinic visit was to inoculate 18 persons on average. (You can read our report at sovanow.com under the Halifax County news section. Our website combines the efforts of The Sun and the News & Record.)

Eighteen people per visit obviously isn’t a lot, although every little bit helps. The goal of the VDH mobile vaccine units is to reach people who, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten vaccinated yet. These mobile clinics dispensed the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shots, making the process as easy as possible for people who might be unable or unwilling to go through the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccine regimens. I got my second Pfizer shot more than two months ago, but I would have happily gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had it been the first choice available. (Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatrician in private life prior to politics, got the J&J shot.) Each of the choices is excellent — safe, 100 percent free, and proven very effective at stopping COVID-19.

Ah yes. COVID-19. Aren’t we all ready to flush those words down the drain already? Alas, while we may be totally and fervently done with the virus, it remains an open question whether it is done with us. Roughly half of the country is now vaccinated. Herd immunity — the protection afforded when the virus no longer has a sufficient pool of unprotected hosts to infect — is not fully defined at this point, but a good guess is it’ll require around 70-80 percent of the population being immunized against the disease. (People who have contracted COVID-19, around 33 million Americans, are thought to gain at least temporary immunity, although there’s still a lot our medical and scientific community must learn about this virus.) Point is, real protection from the pandemic — and a lasting return to a reasonably normal existence — is doable, but we’ve got a ways yet to go to get to this happy state, no matter what the day-to-day covid caseload numbers may say. And this doesn’t even broach the subject of mass vaccination around the world, which must happen for Americans to be truly safe.

So: 18 people per mobile unit visit. What can be done to drive up those numbers? I want to put in my vote for the Ohio solution — a weekly lottery to reward people for getting vaccinated. The Buckeye State is giving out $1 million prizes and free four-year college scholarships (for the 18-and-under crowd) to incentivize folks to go get their shots. Virginia emphatically ought to do the same.

Ohio’s Vax-A-Million lotto (five drawings in all) has yielded some early success, according to the Ohio Department of Health: a first-week surge of 47 percent in first-dose shots for adults ages 18 and up. (The increase for adolescents was even higher, though I don’t know if comparisons to the past are valid because we’re still early in the period that children have been authorized to get the shots.) With vaccination rates lagging around the country, the value of getting more people immunized is enormous. To those who believe a vaccine lottery is a frivolous use of public funds, I would ask: What is the dollar value of keeping patients out of the ICU, hooked up to ventilators? $10,000 per person? (Cue up loud snorts of laughter.) $50,000 per person? According to one study by trade journal Healthcare Finance, hospitalization costs for uninsured patients with COVID-19 range from $51,389 to $78,569 depending on age, and those numbers are averages. Shudder to think what the numbers look like for patients who endure prolonged hospital stays (and I personally know of people who fall into this category.) Keep 20 people out of the hospital, and chances are you’ve already paid for your first $1 million lottery prize.

I’ve been hesitant to make this point before, but we have a pretty good idea by now of the people who are most resistant to getting vaccinated: Republicans. The survey data is clear: several polling outfits, from Monmouth University to NPR NewsHour/PBS/Marist to Quinnipiac, show that somewhere around 40 percent of Republicans say they do not plan to get vaccinated (although a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll suggests that number is dropping.) The politicization of vaccination is a travesty — an insult to American history and to a medical innovation that has saved literally hundreds of millions of lives worldwide — but it is what it is, unfortunately. Hitting people over the head with facts and admonishments in the hope of changing their minds doesn’t work (ever tried this sort of thing on Facebook?), but at least there’s a chance that maybe cold hard cash can. Besides, if you’re like me (doubtful, I know), you probably think all lotteries are frivolous and basically stupid. So why not load up a Vax-A-Five-Hundred-Million Powerball and see if that’ll convince more than 18 people to come out for the next visit of the health department vaccination van/traveling lotto ticket sales counter?

Just in case you were wondering about this aspect of the Ohio lottery: yes, people who’ve already been vaccinated are eligible to win. Sign me up!

***

The Democratic primary for statewide office is Tuesday, June 8. Polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m., as usual. Virginia has an open primary system, which means any registered voter can take part in Tuesday’s vote. You can vote early at the county registrar’s office through Saturday, June 5 (daily office hours, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except Saturday which is 8-4), and on Election Day, six days from now. Take your pick (or not).

I have my own preferences among the candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, but that’s not our primary topic of discussion here. (Okay, real quick, my picks: former Prince William delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy for governor, Roanoke delegate Sam Rasoul for lieutenant governor, and Attorney General Mark Herring for a third term as attorney general.) Democrats are choosing their candidates for the 2021 general election the little-D democratic way — holding a primary to maximize participation, in contrast to Virginia Republicans who chose their candidates in a ultra-low participation statewide party convention (actually, a bunch of mini-conventions around the state, with the nearest one happening in Drakes Branch. Yes, Drakes Branch. I guess Superman’s phone booth was already reserved.) Now that we’ve laid out the basics, let’s dig in: What in the hell has gotten into the Republican Party that it is now so openly hostile to the idea of people voting, and to the idea of democracy itself?

The evidence for this proposition is overwhelming: voter suppression laws are sailing through Republican-controlled legislatures around the country, with provisions so outrageous that no one even bothers to try to justify them with a straight face any more. (In Arizona, Republicans in both houses of the legislature are moving to strip the duly-elected Secretary of State, a Democrat, of the power to defend the state against election challenges, just as Georgia Republicans have already done the same in their state, despite the fact a fellow Republican serves as Secretary of State. The unifying trait in the Democratic and Republican officeholders in these two swing states is that both rejected the fraudulent claim that Donald Trump was robbed of victory, when in fact Trump lost both Georgia and Arizona fair and square.) How bad a sham is the Arizona bill? It would restore the Secretary of State’s powers after the current officeholder, Katie Hobbs, is termed out of office, at which point the proposed law sunsets. Until then, Arizona’s election integrity would rest in the hands of the state’s Republican Attorney General. This is an autocratic power grab, end of story.

One thing we learned with last year’s election is that the only people who seem willing and capable of stopping this sort of thing — whether “this sort of thing” is Donald Trump, or the increasing radicalization of the Republican Party — are the American people themselves. Robert Mueller didn’t “stop Trump.” Congress didn’t do it. The press and the courts and the powers-that-be didn’t do it. The American electorate did. The upshot of the modern-day Republican Party platform is that only Republicans deserve to govern and no one else does (and Democrats who receive the most votes are illegitimate pretenders to the throne) and until voters punish this arrogance and folly, the outrages are sure to continue. It would be great to think that Congress might step in and pass federal protections to preserve the right to vote, and ensure America’s elections are decided fairly under established rules, but alas, our 50-50 Senate is showing itself to be inadequate to the task. (Another long story there.)

What does any of this have to do with the June 8 primary in Virginia? Only this: Not so long ago, Virginians suffered the same restrictions at the ballot box that are rightfully causing an uproar elsewhere. Limited access to the ballot box. Very little to zero opportunity for early absentee voting. No mail-in voting opportunities to speak of. I don’t know about anyone else, but I genuinely appreciated the opportunity to vote early in the 2020 presidential election, having waited in line for almost an hour to vote in the 2008 race, and about half an hour in 2016. For people who have less time and less flexibility, limited early in-person or mail voting can be the difference in whether they vote or not. As I stood in line for five minutes in the 2020 presidential race (I think I voted on a Wednesday, about two weeks before Election Day) I got a definite sense that local Republican voters liked the ease of access, too. Kudos to the General Assembly and Gov. Northam for making voting in Virginia easy and secure — a goal toward which the other party has shown open hostility.

Long story short: vote next week, and vote again in November. So-called sacred rights we take for granted can be taken away at any time, it seems. Not, let us hope, in Virginia.

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