Jaco: COVID selfishness, conspiracies endanger vulnerable Missourians, St. Louisans

We hadn’t seen my mother-in-law at her nursing home for a year because of the COVID lockdown. She’s vaccinated. We’re vaccinated. Finally, in March, we could schedule a half-hour visit once a week, wearing masks, six feet apart in a conference room. In April, we could see her once a week in her room, fully masked. In May, we could schedule half-hour visits as often as we wanted, and lose the masks.

Finally, this month, we were able to visit without advance notice. I met her for lunch last week. We talked about her growing up in Indiana in the Thirties, living in Las Vegas in the Fifties, and working as an illustrator for department store newspaper ads in the Sixties. It was delightful.

This week, we got a call and email from the nursing home. They’ve gone back into full lockdown with no visits at all. Why? Because one of the health care workers at the nursing home who had refused to get vaccinated came down with COVID. 

The selfishness and disregard for others by someone allegedly in health care made me angry. The nursing home administrator replied by email that she could understand my frustration, but that the nursing home “is not legally allowed” to require COVID vaccines of employees.

That, it turns out, is a lie. Missouri law says nothing about it. The state Department of Health and Senior Services says only that employees cannot be “forced” to receive a vaccine. But outside of “sincerely held religious beliefs or health and medical conditions,” employers can require a vaccine as a condition of employment. The federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has ruled that companies are not violating any federal laws by requiring vaccinations. 

BJC, St. Luke’s and other health care facilities around St. Louis are requiring COVID vaccines. No jab, no job. And if nursing homes fit in any employment category, it’s as a health care facility. Whether a nursing home would want to require vaccines is another matter. During a labor shortage, a nursing home might decide against firing employees it can’t easily replace. But that’s their decision. It’s not the law.

Another factor is the demographics of nursing home skilled resident care employees. Most are African-American, and most are women. And despite Black people’s nationally dying of COVID at twice the rate of whites (in Missouri, Blacks make up 11 percent of the population and 13 percent of COVID deaths), north St. Louis and parts of North County have low vaccination rates rivalled only by white pro-Trump counties outstate.

Around the Jeff-Vander-Lou and Carr Square neighborhoods on the city’s North Side, the vaccination rate is only 19 percent, a rate similar to almost-all-white rural Buchannan County in far northwestern Missouri. In the North County area around Bellefontaine Neighbors, fewer than 21 percent of people have been vaccinated. That’s roughly the same rate as almost totally white Barton County in southwestern Missouri.

The results may be the same, but the motives are different. Vaccination levels in many urban African-American neighborhoods around the country are low either because of lack of access, lingering suspicions about the government and health care system based on everything from the Tuskegee Experiment to Henrietta Lacks’ cells, or conspiracy theories.

In rural, white Missouri, vaccines are being refused because of tribal allegiance to the populist Trump movement, conspiracy theories, and a bias against science as being somehow “elitist.” That attitude has resulted in a surge of COVID cases in southwestern and northern Missouri; in Missouri’s now leading the nation in the number of cases and hospitalizations per capita; and in the prevalence of the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

But both Black people refusing vaccines because they don’t trust the medical system and white people refusing because of political ideology are doing the same thing: They’re endangering other people because of what they “believe.”  They “believe” the vaccine is dangerous. They “believe” COVID isn’t that bad. They “believe” random conspiracies on Facebook, not science. They “believe” their right to refuse a vaccine is greater than your right not to be infected, get sick or die.

Since stupidity isn’t an evolutionary advantage, it’s hard to see how these people survived long enough to walk upright and have opposable thumbs. This isn’t “belief.” This is sociopathic, borderline criminal behavior in the middle of a pandemic. They, of course, have every right to “believe” that their anti-science gibberish trumps the health of their vulnerable neighbors, friends, co-workers, or anyone they come into contact with. They have every right to refuse to get vaccinated.

And their workplaces have every right to fire them for rejecting the vaccine. Their “you’re not the boss of me” nonsense about “personal choice” is a smokescreen. As economist John Maynard Keynes said about modern conservatives, their refusal to be vaccinated for a deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic is “[engaging] in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy, that is, the search for a moral justification for selfishness.”

I hope the maskless COVID-deniers are happy that they helped spread the virus and kill 600,000 Americans. I hope the anti-vaxxers are pleased that the new, more contagious version of COVID is raging across Missouri thanks to their refusal to do their part to stop its spread. 

And I hope the health care worker at my mother-in-law’s nursing home is delighted that his or her refusal to be vaccinated while working in a facility for the frail and elderly has caused hundreds of family members and residents to be separated from one another again, after more a year of no in-person contact.

Actually, I’m lying. I don’t hope anything for these people except the fervent wish that their sociopathic disregard for others carries a price tag.

Illness. Job loss. Pick one.  

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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