The Rural Pandemic Isn’t Ending

Public-health leaders in rural America are turning toward the next and more difficult stage of the nationwide vaccination campaign: persuasion.

The Atlantic
April 14, 2021

Americans will soon begin to fall back into the rhythms of pre-pandemic life—attending sunny summer weddings, squishing into booths at chain restaurants, laughing together at movies on the big screen—and it will feel like a victory over the coronavirus. But the virus might not actually be gone. In pockets of the country, vaccination rates could stay low, creating little islands where the coronavirus survives and thrives—sickening and killing people for months after the pandemic has ebbed elsewhere. In a worst-case scenario, the virus could mutate, becoming a highly transmissible and much more lethal version of itself. Eventually, the new variant could leak from these islands and spread into the broader population, posing a threat to already-vaccinated people...

The politicization of vaccines will complicate this effort. Curiously, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Anti-vaccine sentiment has been around since the early days of the smallpox vaccine, and that sentiment grew stronger after the discredited British physician Andrew Wakefield published a now-retracted paper linking vaccines to autism in 1998. But vaccine opponents’ concerns were mostly medical rather than ideological, David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University who studies group decision making and behavioral epidemiology, told me. In a recent study analyzing a decade of anti-vaccine rhetoric on Facebook, Broniatowski and a research team concluded that vaccine opposition first became politicized in 2015. That year, a measles outbreak linked to two Disneyland theme parks in California affected more than 100 people and triggered a “multi-state public health incident.” Most of those infected were unvaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status, and the California state legislature responded by removing personal-belief exemptions from public-school immunization requirements. The backlash from vaccine opponents was fierce: Suddenly, the issue was less about medical safety and more about freedom and individual choice. The following year, the propaganda film Vaxxed helped crystallize vaccination as a civil-liberties concern, and vaccine opposition became much more common among conservatives, who were more likely than liberals to be critical of government interference in Americans’ private lives, Broniatowski said.

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