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What happened last week is that patience from the vaccinated finally ran out

Danny Westneat
The Seattle Times (TNS)
A protest organized by Shop Mask Free Los Angeles rally against the COVID-19 vaccine, masks and lockdowns, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

One thing has become clear in our on-again pandemic nightmare: We’re definitely not all in this together anymore.

The latest surge in coronavirus hospitalizations among the unvaccinated — so maddening because it was so preventable — was sure to touch off a backlash of sorts, once it dawned on people that a new round of society-wide restrictions, mask-wearing and closures for everyone would be the result.

“We could have done this the easy way,” I wrote a few weeks ago. “But ‘we’ chose not to … So the hard way it’s going to be.”

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That hard way has suddenly arrived. A number of cities and states, including Seattle, started imposing various forms of a “get vaccinated or get fired” policy for some government workers, teachers and health workers last week.

Some cities, such as San Francisco, have also started imposing sweeping “no shots, no service” policies at all restaurants, bars, cafes and gyms.

There’s a palpable tension rising between the roughly 60% who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and the 40% who still are not — especially as it sinks in that we’re not headed back to normal now as we’d once hoped.

“Everybody I know is pissed off” was the headline at The Atlantic magazine, on a story about how public opinion polls have abruptly shifted in favor of far tougher vaccine and mask requirements.

“The vaccinated, across party lines, have kind of had it with the unvaccinated,” the story summed up.

A recent poll asked the provocative question: Who do you blame that we’re right back in the thick of this mess again? It’s the unvaccinated who are at fault, the vaccinated answered. While the unvaccinated pointed the finger at anybody but themselves — at “foreign travelers entering the U.S.,” at “the mainstream media,” at Joe Biden.

It’s like we’ve split into camps in a surreal medical civil war.

“I mean, are they going to strap people to gurneys and force shots into their bodies?” objected Washington state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley.

No, they’re not going to do that. But Washington Gov. Jay Inslee did go further than expected in his new order that most state employees and health workers must get the shots. He didn’t allow for much wiggle room, as other states have done.

There are only two exceptions to Inslee’s mandate — a medical one, such as for folks whose immune systems won’t tolerate vaccination, and a religious one. There’s no option to get regular coronavirus tests instead.

If they refuse, then they will no longer be employed with the state, Inslee said.

You could hear the mounting frustration that led him to this: “There is no reason on this green Earth why people who are vaccinated should lose the right to go to a restaurant, or go to school, or go to work because some folks won’t get vaccinated. That’s just not right. It’s not fair.”

Personally I favor the way California did it, where workers must either be vaccinated or submit to weekly or twice-weekly virus testing. Oregon is also doing it that way with its health workers. It leaves workers with some medical choice while granting the public a level of protection against the virus either way.

Getting tested constantly would also be such a hassle that I bet most workers would eventually cave and get the shots.

But Inslee said the testing is expensive and not as effective as vaccination. While that’s true, it’s also true that the government telling people they must take a drug that is still approved only under an emergency authorization, or lose their jobs, is going to spark a backlash of its own.

Some health care workers protested the new vaccination rules Friday in Olympia, Washington and more protests were scheduled outside hospitals.

“Pro Choice, where you at?” read one of the signs at a vaccine-rules protest last week at a hospital in Vancouver, Washington. It evokes a libertarian sentiment, which I share, that the government should tread lightly if at all when getting involved in people’s medical decisions.

That said, it’s also easy to see how it came to this. A pandemic is just different (surely we can all see that by now). A novel highly infectious disease demands a community, group response — it doesn’t work for everyone to go their individualistic ways as we may normally do.

So now we’re going to have to mask up again, vaxxed or not. We’ve also tried all the cooing and soothing and plying with lotteries to persuade the vaccine resistant. None of it worked. So here we sit, with hospitalizations rising again in this fifth wave, and seething, as the fall school term is once again imperiled, and a sixth wave this winter now seems all but inevitable.

Again, I would add a testing option to give people a choice. But the usual suspects would undoubtedly assail that as tyranny, too (they are already doing so over the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask).

So we’re doing it the hard way now, and this is what the hard way looks like.

It’s obvious after 18 months of this that America is too riven to ever agree how to end this pandemic. What happened this past week is: Something snapped. Patience, from the vaccinated, finally ran out.

— Danny Westneat is a columnist for The Seattle Times.