OPINION: Georgia anti-vaxxers are like ‘Stop the Steal’ on steroids

Medical workers at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta emerge from the ambulance bay on Aug. 10, 2021 as Georgia hospitals are diverting emergencies because of the COVID-19 surge. Grady is only taking COVID patients. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
Medical workers at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta emerge from the ambulance bay on Aug. 10, 2021 as Georgia hospitals are diverting emergencies because of the COVID-19 surge. Grady is only taking COVID patients. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The announcement at a press conference Monday was the latest moment in the World-is-Going-to-Hell category.

It indicated that public discourse has moved from willful ignorance and aggressive stupidity to a purposeful anti-social action and life-threatening insanity.

At the same time COVID-19 cases are surging across the state and hospital intensive care units are swelling with the grievously ill, there’s been an increasing number of cretins harassing medical workers as they try to vaccinate people.

“I’ve become aware that many of our line workers who are doing these vaccinations are receiving threats, hostile emails, harassing emails,” said state Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey. “That shouldn’t happen to nurses who are working in the field to try and keep this state safe. I heard one mobile event in one town had to close down because of the harassment, bullying and threats that were directed to our team. This is wrong, absolutely wrong.”

Yes, wrong — and predictable, not to mention despicable.

There was an event at an unnamed North Georgia town where an organized group showed up to badger and intimidate health care workers trying to vaccinate people. State officials have declined to say where this occurred, apparently not wanting to egg on the nutjobs.

That was not an isolated incident, they said. Residents protesting the vaccinations in a South Georgia county tracked down public health employees on social media and bombarded them with angry messages and alternate realities about the vaccine. Other events brought jeers, catcalls or other nonsense.

This all means if you were thinking of taking the vaccine, a mob of your noisy neighbors might try to dissuade you. Peer pressure doesn’t die in middle school.

But it’s not just health care workers performing vaccinations who are catching grief. Piedmont Hospital has erected signs asking the public to lay off its workers, saying “they should be able to do their jobs without being physically or verbally abused.”

Months ago, I thought civil discourse had bottomed out when self-deputized members of the Stop the Steal crowd stalked, yelled at and menaced election workers. But this new brand of madness is more loathsome and its perpetuators border on being domestic terrorists. They aren’t trying to undo an election. They’re playing with people’s lives.

I texted Gov. Brian Kemp, asking him if he could be more strident in his disdain for such activity, like putting on a stern face and saying, “People, cut out this crap! It’s stupid, mean and immoral.”

His staff sent me the clip of the press conference. After Toomey said her piece, he stepped up saying, “We need to unite in these tough times, not be divided. Let’s all be respectful in the days ahead.”

There was no tough stare followed by podium pounding, which I suppose seems logical. He can’t afford to further alienize his base after catching Donald Trump’s ire. However, he recently asked law enforcement to keep an eye on vaccination sites and arrest those who go way out of line.

Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp, right, listens as Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey speaks during a COVID-19 update press conference at the Georgia Capitol Building in Atlanta on Aug. 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Gov. Brian Kemp, right, listens as Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey speaks during a COVID-19 update press conference at the Georgia Capitol Building in Atlanta on Aug. 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp, right, listens as Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey speaks during a COVID-19 update press conference at the Georgia Capitol Building in Atlanta on Aug. 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Kemp, who is vaccinated, pointed out at the press conference that Trump, during his presidency, pushed for the vaccine to be created and did it in record time. He noted that those lagging in their embrace of the vaccine are Black people and “people who just don’t trust the government.”

Then he added, “The numbers do not lie; 95% of the people in the hospital (with COVID-19) have not been vaccinated.”

In Georgia, almost 42% of the population has been fully vaccinated and nearly 52% has gotten at least one shot. The state is about 10 percentage points behind the rest of the nation.

The spike in cases has taken off in the past couple of months because of the highly transmissible delta variant, and because people have become fatigued by the ongoing pandemic.

There’s also this: The return of school. Georgia’s youths are not as likely to get deathly ill as folks who are old or have health issues. But they’ve been effective spreaders of the disease. And if you demand that kids mask up in school, you’re liable to encounter someone with a red face and bulging veins.

Gabriel Sterling, the Republican state elections official who last year angrily called out Trump and demanded that zealots stop threatening election workers, agreed that the virulent anti-vaxxers share similarities with the Stop the Steal crowd.

“It does seem to be a Venn diagram,” he said, referring to charts that show overlapping circles that demonstrate groups with commonalities.

“It’s the tribalism that forces your opinions on this,” said Sterling, who is vaccinated. “Everyone is lined up on things that you have to (agree with) to be accepted by the tribe. And then there’s the other side looking down on them.”

As we talked, Sterling referred to an article written this week by conservative pundit David French that referred to the Venn diagram and the tribalism. That article also said, “We are learning that there are often no limits to the gullibility and rage of the truly partisan person, especially when negative polarization means that partisan commitment is defined by animosity against the other side.”

Sterling noted it almost falls into the religious fervor category, adding, “You can have your own opinions, but don’t get into the way of people who want to get vaccinated.”

I called John Cowan, the northwest Georgia neurosurgeon who lost a lopsided Republican congressional primary last year to the person who symbolizes everything wrong with American politics today: Marjorie Taylor Greene.

My colleague, political reporter Greg Bluestein, encountered Cowan last month in his scrubs at a Republican rally in Rome as he tried to persuade attendees to get vaccinated. It was a move that demonstrates Dr. Cowan, while being a brilliant man, is a glutton for punishment. He did not convince anyone to get the jab.

Caption
Dr. John Cowan, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Marjorie Taylor Greene, tried to get some fellow conservatives to get vaccinated at a rally in Rome. Photo by Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Dr. John Cowan, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Marjorie Taylor Greene, tried to get some fellow conservatives to get vaccinated at a rally in Rome. Photo by Greg Bluestein
Caption
Dr. John Cowan, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Marjorie Taylor Greene, tried to get some fellow conservatives to get vaccinated at a rally in Rome. Photo by Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

He said he was simply trying to put a face on the need to fight COVID and that those urging vaccination are not the enemy. “It was almost a missionary mentality, if I can save one soul, I did my job,” he said.

The intimidation and harassments mentioned by Dr. Toomey are simply “the next level of idiocy, a burn-all-the-food mentality,” Cowan said.

“I believe in the idea of personal freedom, but I draw the line when you impede or falsely instruct others of your lunacy,” he said. “We have a lot of folks with no medical training advocating against vaccinations, which is absolutely irresponsible. They have blood on their hands. It’s borderline nihilism.”

He added, “As conservatives, we have to detach this from politics. We can’t be known as the party of anti-science.”

Cowan said Kemp is in a tough spot but cannot win over many Georgians by issuing mask mandates. He said more of a “free market approach” is needed, such as businesses mandating that workers get vaccinated. “The business level, the school level, the church level is probably the best way to go,” he said.

It’ll be a slog, Cowan added. It’ll take individual discussions between friends and family members. Or it’ll take tragedy, like loved ones getting vaccinated only after a relative dies or is hospitalized.

However it goes, it will be long, hard and ugly.

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