After a COVID-19 quarantine that kept me from swimming laps at my gym for 15 months, I returned three weeks ago. Within minutes of getting into the pool, I had a run-in with a 30-something woman when I pointed to a sign saying the lane next to mine should be kept empty during the maskless huffing and puffing that comes with swimming laps.
As the woman pulled herself out of the closed lane, her twisted face told me she was not going to go graciously.
“I guess you’re one of those people,” was what I heard as my head dipped below the water on my way to my next lap.
I’ve never had the common sense to avoid an argument, so I stopped mid-stroke, turned around, and replied, “My sister’s best friend died of COVID at 38 and that’s a fate I want to avoid ... so, yeah, I’m definitely one of those people!”
She didn’t miss a beat: “I take my vitamins, so I don’t need to worry about COVID.”
It’s a sad sign of the times, but my first thought was as soon as this woman’s swim cap comes off, it’s going to be replaced with a MAGA hat.
Over the next several weeks, I’ve encountered the same woman on almost every visit to the pool. Our interaction has been limited to me shooting her condescending looks ― if it’s possible to maintain an air of superiority while waiting for a swim lane at the age of 60, dripping wet, and wearing goggles, a rubber cap, and a swimsuit that refuses to hide a year of lockdown baking.
Then, last week, it happened. While we were each taking a quick break from swimming laps, she started to make her way toward me. I was grateful no one was in the pool with a cellphone to tweet what I anticipated was going to be an embarrassing screaming match between a half-naked former federal prosecutor and a Q-Anon conspiracy theorist with a “COVID’s a hoax” bumper sticker on her pickup truck.
Boy, was I wrong.
She began with, “Hi, my name’s Cheryl.” Then, she offered to switch lanes with me because she knew I preferred the lane furthest away from people, due to my concerns about COVID. I thanked Cheryl for her offer and, during our conversation, I asked if she’d been vaccinated.
She hadn’t, for several reasons: She’d heard people were paying a lot of money for the vaccine and she could not afford it; every morning, she drank a green juice elixir that would protect her; she’d made it this long without getting sick; and if she thought about COVID too much, it would “manifest” itself by infecting her.
I politely debunked Cheryl’s concerns, encouraged her to protect herself by getting vaccinated, and declined the invitation to swim in her lane for fear of the possible COVID cloud that may be hovering above it. But as I left the gym, it occurred to me that the “I got vaccinated because I believe in science” and “the vaccine contains a microchip” camps are not the only ones that exist.
There is a whole group of people who genuinely do not understand the danger presented by COVID and the protection that comes with a free vaccination.
One in four Americans refuses to get vaccinated. Whether it’s because of false reports that the vaccine causes autism, is not effective, contains a tracking microchip, or is the love-child of Biden libs, there seems to be no reasoning with these people. We need to accept the fact that they are a lost cause and stop trying to convince them to get vaccinated.
That said, a recent poll found 5% of Americans are “undecided” about getting the COVID-19 vaccine. These are the Cheryls of the country ― they are not hostile to the idea of vaccination and could be persuaded to inch us closer to the 75% vaccination rate that will bring herd immunity and the freedom it offers.
I’m not sure how to reach the Cheryls, but federal, state and local governments need to find a way. As grotesque as it is to offer a million-dollar lottery to cajole people into receiving a free life-saving vaccine, it appears to have worked in Ohio, where the state’s records show that vaccinations of people 18 and older increased 47% after their lottery was announced. California has followed suit with “$116.5 million in prizes for people who have or will receive vaccines.”
“A recent poll found 5% of Americans are 'undecided' about getting the COVID-19 vaccine. They are not hostile to the idea of vaccination and could be persuaded to inch us closer to the 75% vaccination rate that will bring herd immunity and the freedom it offers.”
Lotteries are a step, but if we want a real chance to avoid yearly cycles of coronavirus outbreaks and mandatory lockdowns, we need a movement. We need Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Beyoncé to recruit 10 of their popstar buddies to record a 2021 vaccine version of “We Are the World.” I suggest a hip-hop, country, disco, K-pop anthem titled “Save the World.”
During recording breaks, each musical celebrity can tape a public service announcement shooting down the insane vaccine misinformation that has risen from the same political cesspool that spawned President Donald Trump.
On the pragmatic side, some people simply struggle to find time in their busy lives to get vaccinated. There should be mobile vaccination units that go to neighborhoods where vaccination rates are low and offer vaccines without an appointment, an insurance card, or a driver’s license. “Just Show Up!” should be the message plastered across buses, billboards, TV commercials, Facebook timelines, and Google search results.
And individual doctors’ offices need to be provided with the vaccine. People may be more trusting of their doctors than the government and may be willing to get vaccinated if the time between their doctor’s recommendation and the shot is a matter of minutes.
Finally, if the carrot does not do the trick, there’s always the stick. In 2013, a federally funded campaign of graphic anti-smoking ads scared a lot of people into quitting. Let’s do the same for COVID.
Let’s air TV and internet commercials that show the x-rays of blood clot-filled lungs that frequently accompany serious cases of COVID-19. Let’s show photos of previously healthy people laughing at family barbecues and then cut to actual video footage of them struggling to breathe on ventilators. Show the funerals of those who did not make it.
The success of the vaccination program to date has ended many mask and distancing restrictions. But only 41% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and experts are concerned that the vaccine’s success will have the unintended effect of reducing people’s motivation to get vaccinated.
Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor at Northeastern University in charge of modeling coronavirus outbreaks, recently warned, “If we’re below 60% to 70% vaccination for COVID when we enter the fall respiratory season, that could easily tip us into an emergency situation.”
Almost 600,000 Americans have died from this disease. We’re in a battle for our lives and we’re getting complacent. We need creative, no-holds-barred strategies to get more people vaccinated -- people like Cheryl who can be convinced. Because, if the past year of COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's that complacency is deadly.
Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor with the Justice Department for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. After leaving DOJ in 2014, he was appointed by the federal court in Los Angeles to represent indigent defendants. In 2018, disheartened by the state of politics and seeking catharsis, Michael began writing political op-eds for publication. He has written more than 80 articles that have appeared in publications like the Guardian, USA Today, Slate, the Hill, the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Advocate. He has also been a guest commentator on news shows, including MSNBC and BBC World News. You can find all of his columns here and you can connect with Michael on Twitter at @MichaelJStern1.