Though there are some notable vaccination holdouts among Republican officials, most in Congress and in state leadership positions have encouraged their constituents to get the shots. “I saw on some program last week that Republican men, curiously enough, might be reluctant to take the vaccine. I’m a Republican man, and I want to say to everyone: We need to take this vaccine,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said at an event in Kentucky this week. Brad Wenstrup, who worked as a podiatrist before becoming a Republican congressman from Ohio, has been so eagerly promoting the vaccines that he got trained to administer them. But the Republican politics around COVID-19 remain treacherous, and when I reached out to several Republican members of Congress, telling their aides I’d be eager to have them make a Wilson-esque fiscally conservative argument for vaccination, I couldn’t find anyone willing to make that case to me.
Calculating the exact long-term costs is tricky; we have only a year’s worth of data on the lasting health consequences of COVID-19, and even less on the efficacy of the vaccines and Americans’ resistance to getting them. Krutika Amin, who conducts economic and policy research for the Kaiser Family Foundation, tried to sketch out what the taxpayer bill might be. Before the pandemic, about 1 million Americans were diagnosed with pneumonia each year in emergency rooms alone. About 1.5 million were hospitalized for pneumonia annually, at an average cost of $20,000 per stay. COVID-19 has been reliably shown to make pneumonia worse. In April 2020, a Kaiser Family Foundation study projected that the cost of treating just COVID-19 cases for the uninsured would range from $13.9 billion to $41.8 billion. If even close to 30 percent of Americans get COVID-19 because they refused to get vaccinated, Amin told me, you’ll see a massive spike in health-care costs.
Kathleen Sebelius, who spent five years as Barack Obama’s secretary for health and human services, told me that about a quarter of Americans are children, and so far, no vaccine has been approved for use in people under 16 years old. If all adults who say they’ll get a vaccine get one, barely more than half of the country will be immunized, which is far short of herd immunity. In kids, “we have a very vulnerable population where we know they may not get as sick and die as much as adults, but they can get sick and die,” Sebelius said. “We have to think about this a little bit like secondhand smoke. By making an adult choice, you’re putting a whole lot of other people at risk in a way that very few other choices do.”
As lockdowns are lifted, Sebelius hopes that vaccine passports will create social pressure, which might wear down hesitancy if unvaccinated people are barred from sports games, concerts, and other public events. But the political divisions on that are already clear, with leaders such as Republican Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves going on CNN to stress that he wants his constituents to get vaccinated, but that he’s opposed to vaccine passports. Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed a preemptive executive order banning them. Although this resistance may halt any federal vaccine-passport efforts, some states and many private companies are independently exploring the idea. So is the Republican National Committee.