COVID-19: 700,000 US deaths and still the most cases in the world
Experts say the coronavirus may never be eradicated, but humans may have to become more resistant to it, like influenza.
STAFF VIDEO, USA TODAY
For a time, the United States’ vaccine rollout was the envy of much of the world. A wildly expensive logistical miracle, the U.S. and other rich nations deployed millions of doses over the winter and rapidly flattened COVID-19 cases in the process.
But now the U.S. has become a global vaccine laggard, with a lower percentage of its population inoculated than dozens of other nations. That includes all the affluent democracies it considers to be peers – the G7 countries including Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.
In many cases, the gap has become massive. Fifty million more Americans would be fully vaccinated right now if the U.S. had been able to match Canada’s enthusiasm for shots, for example.
Supply isn’t the problem – a complicated and confounding lack of demand is to blame.
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“The United States is very unusual,” said Michael Bang Petersen – a professor at Denmark’s Aarhus University who leads a project on how democracies are responding to COVID-19. He said the U.S. has uniquely politicized the virus response, undermining the demand for vaccination.
The result: U.S. vaccination rates vary widely between states and closely track along political lines.
“Being a Democrat is one of the best predictors of being vaccinated,” said Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who was a member of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. For some conservatives, opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates has become “the ultimate test of loyalty to your in-group,” she said.
Meanwhile, global vaccine supply has improved and countries around the world are are overtaking the U.S. vaccination rate. The United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Cambodia, Mongolia and Chile are among the dozens of nations that have fully vaccinated a larger percentage of their populations than the U.S., according to Friday Our World in Data statistics.
The vaccine slowdown in the U.S. is contributing to the virus’ devastating impact on the nation. New cases here remain among the highest in the world as the U.S. marks more than 700,000 COVID-19 deaths.
“It’s depressing; you cry,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. “What happened here?”
Pandemic politics a ‘US centric thing’
The United States’ pandemic politicization bewilders many experts.
In Denmark, COVID politics often revolve around the question “is the government performing well?” Petersen said. That’s in stark contrast to the U.S. where the major parties can’t agree virtually anything – mask mandates, lockdowns and vaccine passports have all been political firestorms.
“This seems to be a very U.S.-centric thing,” Petersen said. It’s led to political gridlock and pandemic restrictions that vary by state, county and city at times – rather than the unified national response many nations were able to rally.
Tracking COVID-19 vaccine distribution by state: How many people have been vaccinated in the US?
As the U.S. struggled to implement national pandemic measures, public health messaging put the onus on individuals, asking them to mask up or get vaccinated to protect themselves.
And while individual responsibility may be a powerful message to Americans, it doesn’t advance the kind of “community level solutions” needed in a pandemic, sociologist and author Jennifer Reich told USA TODAY. Reich has authored a book on vaccine refusal.
She recalled taking a recent trip to Montreal where she was asked for her vaccine records at every turn. It “changes interactions in the community,” she said.
US has a trust problem with vaccines
Politics isn’t the only reason the U.S. is struggling to get tens of millions of people vaccinated. The nation also has a trust problem.
Because vaccines are given to healthy people to prevent disease, they inherently require a high level of trust, Reich said.
That’s proven to be a problem in the U.S.
There’s an unusual amount of disagreement in the U.S. about whether science can be trusted, which helps enable vaccine hesitancy views to become more mainstream, Patrick Sturgis, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told USA TODAY.
Mapping coronavirus: Tracking U.S. cases and deaths
Sturgis has co-authored a study on the connection between vaccine confidence and trust in science. The problem in the U.S. could be a lack of “social consensus” about the trustworthiness of science, he said.
He compared the U.S. to France, a nation “famously very hesitant” towards vaccines. But France has beaten the U.S. vaccination rate now, in part because it kept vaccine skepticism comparatively out of the mainstream, Sturgis said.
“We are absolutely are not the only country to see distrust of vaccines,” Reich said. But in many other countries, most people have a level of confidence that their government can evaluate the “risk and benefit” of vaccines and other pandemic measures.
Vaccination decline complex, but predictable
America’s vaccine demand problem can’t be traced to a single issue, experts told USA TODAY. While it’s not simple to untangle, few are surprised America has fallen behind.
The situation is “not particularly surprising,” Sturgis said.
Sturgis said he anticipated nations hitting an issue with COVID-19 vaccine demand. The United States’ sprawling size political polarization set it up for the challenges it is facing today.
And while the U.S. slowly works to drum up demand for vaccines with mandates, the problem simply doesn’t exist in many other nations.
Send COVID-19 vaccine doses to Mokdad’s home country of Lebanon and “they will be using them in no time,” he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press