Urging some folks to finally get vaccinated against COVID is akin to pleading with smokers to stop smoking, Nancy Townsley examines the comparison.
Thirty-five years ago, a couple of months before I was due to give birth to my first child, I worked up the courage to have a come-to-Jesus moment with my mother. It wasn’t something I relished, as I’ve never been comfortable with conflict, and she didn’t always make it easy to see difficult conversations through to a mutually satisfying end. But it was something I had to do in order to protect my baby.
“You can come over here after the baby’s born, but we won’t be bringing her to your house as long as you’re still smoking,” I said to my mom, sitting at my kitchen table, sweaty palms cradling my burgeoning belly. She already knew smoking was verboten at our place.
Mom has been gone for eight years now, having passed away from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. She endured breast cancer and a mastectomy before dementia got the better of her. She stopped smoking cigarettes—cold turkey—after my emotional entreaty in the early weeks of 1986. I was so proud of her for that, and relieved, too.
In the 1950s, when Mom took up the habit, smoking was widely viewed as relatively benign. Even doctors were doing pro-smoking ads, encouraging their stressed-out male colleagues to light up for pleasure and relaxation. Anti-smoking advertisements didn’t start airing on television until 1967, when I was 10 years old, once the U.S. Surgeon General linked tobacco use to adverse health conditions. And even after that, in 1972, comedian George Carlin made “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” euphemistic fodder for his stand-up routine.
I grew up in a cloud of second-hand smoke. Both of my parents smoked inside our family station wagon and in our home. I don’t remember it being anything out of the ordinary—all my friends’ parents smoked, too—but as I grew into emboldened adolescence, I do recall it as annoying.
“My clothes all smell like smoke!” I accused my mother in 1973, standing before my open closet, hands perched indignantly on my barely-pubescent hips. “It’s disgusting! Why can’t you quit?”
My father had given up smoking a few years before that, but Mom kept up her pack-a-day habit until her brother, who was also a smoker, had to have quadruple bypass surgery—and until I offered up my ultimatum.
It seems to me there’s an apt connection between today’s public response to the coronavirus pandemic and attitudes toward cigarettes in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, by and large, people quit smoking because they started to see that cigarettes were a legitimate and pressing health hazard that endangered them and their loved ones. Later, of course, our elected officials passed laws prohibiting smoking in indoor public spaces, a logical decision that still stands today.
Fast-forward to 2021, and only a small majority of the population—somewhere around 60 percent—has gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. They’re the folks who’ve recognized that COVID is a pervasive and deadly virus that can kill not only the medically vulnerable and the elderly but young, seemingly healthy folks as well.
The extrapolation makes sense. Stop smoking and you’re less likely to suffer from cancer, heart disease, or emphysema. Get the shot and you’re more likely to avoid hospitalization, intubation, and death from COVID.
Stop smoking and you’re less likely to suffer from cancer, heart disease, or emphysema. Get the shot and you’re more likely to avoid hospitalization, intubation, and death from COVID.
And yet, millions of Americans—in a country where the vaccine supply is plentiful—are still willfully ignoring pleas from physicians and scientists to get the jab. “It’s my body, my choice,” some say, and I can’t argue with that. A person has every right to make decisions for their own corpus, however misguided. But what they don’t have a right to do is put others at risk in the name of their precious individual freedoms.
My father turned 91 on July 30. He survived eras when polio crippled people, diphtheria was a danger, and measles could render children deaf or dead. Vaccines vanquished those diseases. Dad took the COVID shot in February when it became available to residents of his retirement community. In mid-July, he fell down in the parking lot outside his home and fractured two vertebrae. He was in the hospital for six days and, during his stay, tests revealed he also has heart failure and aortic stenosis.
He’s been transferred to a skilled nursing center for rest and rehab, and my two sisters and I have hope that he will recover fully enough to get back to his apartment, “to civilization,” as he put it on the phone one morning. To see more of his grandkids get married. To meet his newest great-grandson.
The facility he’s in has a COVID-related policy that baffles me. Upon entry, vaccinated folks must show their “I got my shot” cards, but they still have to wear an N95 mask and a face shield. No problem there—the highly transmissible Delta variant makes masking up make sense again. Unvaccinated people are offered a rapid test and, if they decline it—again, why would they?—they must sign a form saying so. And yet, just like those of us who rolled up our sleeves, they too gain admittance to rooms in which immunosuppressed, recuperating people lie in beds and sit in chairs—patients for whom exposure to the virus could prove too much for their weakened systems to manage.
This mixed message makes no sense.
Bluntly, because of some folks’ stubborn insistence on preserving their own “rights,” those laboring to get better inside the facility’s walls could unwittingly forfeit theirs. It begs the question: Why have protective protocols at all if you’re not willing to enforce them? To the nation’s nursing homes, I say: Offer the test, and mean it. To the unvaccinated, I plead: Take the test or stay away.
I applaud the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and major cities whose leaders are stepping up to contain COVID by requiring their employees to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing. I cheered on July 29 when President Biden said during a press conference—amid a rising tide of new cases, almost exclusively among the unvaccinated—“People talk about freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility. Exercise responsible judgment. Get vaccinated.”
These decisions aren’t political—spare me any argumentative rhetoric to the contrary—they’re about saving lives. But they haven’t gone nearly far enough. As Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus observed in her column in The Washington Post recently, we need to stop coddling the reckless and mandate vaccination. Vaccine laggards—Marcus gives those whose medical conditions counsel against the shot a pass—are prolonging everyone’s misery by keeping the virulent cycle spinning. Their behavior is unconscionable. The ache of COVID fatigue, and the freshly rising death toll, sit squarely on their shoulders.
Long ago, I braced my mother with a choice. She took me seriously and, as a result, spent many happy times with her granddaughter over the years. How very glad I am of that.