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On November 17th, 2021 – nearly two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – Indiana reported 3,481 new cases, breaking the 3,000 case ceiling for the first time in nearly three months. The same day, we saw an 11.6% positive test rate.
Astonishingly, at nearly the same moment, Attorney General Rokita announced a third in a series of taxpayer-funded lawsuits targeting federal vaccine efforts. These suits are even more perplexing given the medically based evidence supporting the conclusion that the only means to stop COVID is widespread vaccination.
Yet, Indiana remains one of the least vaccinated states nationwide. We rank 41st for fully vaccinated residents and 46th for residents with at least one dose. Every single one of our neighbor states has performed better. We have the 18th highest death rate in the country – 255 out of every 100,000 Hoosiers have died as a result of COVID. Our total number of confirmed deaths at the time of writing this article is 17,247. This number only becomes more harrowing when you consider all the other tens of thousands of lives irrevocably impacted by the deaths of their most loved ones and those living with the life-altering side effects of long haul COVID.
Part of what makes many of these deaths so deeply tragic is that they were likely avoidable. Nationwide, unvaccinated individuals have a much higher chance of catching COVID than someone fully vaccinated. They are also 11.3 times likelier to die if they catch it.
Over the past two years, many Republican state leaders have shown persistent ambivalence or outright opposition to vaccination efforts across Indiana, a manifestation of a larger irresponsible culture war. When Indiana University announced its intent to require COVID vaccinations on campus, AG Rokita denounced the decision and nineteen Republican state lawmakers called on Governor Holcomb to nullify the mandate. One has to wonder where Rokita and these lawmakers have been, since a vast majority of colleges and universities nationwide have required certain vaccinations as a condition of acceptance for decades – a policy even our courts have recognized as constitutional for over a hundred years. If schools couldn’t require measles vaccinations, how many thousands of students would still catch it every year? How many would die?
More recently, the Republican supermajority called lawmakers back into a surprise, one-day session outside of our normal meeting schedule to further crack down on business and education based vaccination efforts. The announcement came early Saturday, with the expectation that the supermajority will be striking the constitutional requirement that bills have three days of deliberation. This leaves precious little opportunity for Hoosiers, businesses, schools and universities to give real input. Why is the party of absolute business freedom suddenly legislating the affairs of private companies? Why is the party that claims to hold the torch on constitutional loyalty and understanding dismissing the constitution outright to limit public input? Why are we disrupting decades of vaccine research and school requirements that have kept our children safe?
Though this life-or-death issue should never have been politicized, studies have indicated that party alliance has become an important factor in vaccine uptake, meaning that Republicans are more likely to get the vaccine when it’s encouraged by another Republican. In Indiana, a majority red state, it’s crucial that GOP leaders step up and work to create more understanding and trust regarding COVID vaccinations. It’s also essential given the vulnerability of rural communities, generally represented by Republicans in Indiana, which have lower vaccination rates and lower access to hospitals and critical care. In Indiana, every rural county’s rate falls below the national average. When the delta variant was at its peak in early fall of this year, ICU beds across the state were filled with COVID patients, largely unvaccinated and in critical condition. Many of those in rural areas were the first to run out of space.
Without concerted, Republican-led efforts to reach vaccine-hesitant Hoosiers, it’s likely that our vaccination rates will continue to lag. The GOP’s continual resistance raises a larger question: Do Indiana Republican leaders want Hoosiers to get vaccinated or not? Do Indiana Republican leaders believe lifesaving science or not? With many experts predicting a surge during the winter months, it’s critical we reach citizens now, or we risk losing many more lives.