The omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading throughout the U.S. at an incredible pace. As reported by CNBC:

The U.S. reported a record number of new Covid cases on Monday, with over one million new infections.

A total of 1,082,549 new coronavirus cases were reported on Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, as the highly infectious omicron variant continues to spread throughout the country.

Not all of these infections are due to the omicron variant; as of Dec. 25, the last date that such tallies were available, the delta variant had accounted for about 41% of new cases, with infections attributable to omicron at about 59%.

As CNBC notes, the astonishing single-day figure may be due to delayed reporting of cases over the holiday weekend.

Nonetheless, as of Jan. 3, the seven-day average of daily new U.S. cases is 480,273, meaning the U.S. has the highest 7-day average of new cases in the world, according to JHU’s rankings.

Thankfully, it still appears that omicron is far less lethal than delta, although it spreads far more rapidly. As noted by Paul Krugman, writing for The New York Times, The delta variant shocked us with its lethality; now omicron is shocking us with its transmissibility.”

Exactly how transmissible and contagious is the omicron variant? Manuel Asede, writing for El Pais, quotes multiple sources in concluding that omicron is the “fastest-spreading virus known to humankind.”

Historian and physician Anton Erkoreka researches epidemics from the past, and is flabbergasted by omicron’s spread. “It is the most-explosive and the fastest-spreading virus in history,” he declared. Erkoreka, director of the Basque Museum of the History of Medicine, recalls that the Black Death (14th century) and 19th-century cholera took years to spread around the world. The so-called Russian flu of 1889, which may have been caused by another coronavirus, required three months to traverse the planet. That is similar to the time taken by the original variant of SARS-CoV-2, detected in December 2019 in Wuhan and already omnipresent by March 2020. “The omicron variant has beaten that record of expansion,” Erkoreka said.

Krugman’s essay points out that even as omicron surges through the American population, Republicans now appear to have a vested interest in minimizing the effects of COVID-19, no matter what variant is involved. He cites a November survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation which found that of the unvaccinated, 60% self-identify as Republicans, while only 17% identify as Democrats.

Political figures like Marco Rubio are dismissing the response to Omicron as “irrational hysteria” because the variant appears to cause relatively few hospitalizations among the fully vaccinated. He slips quickly past that last qualification, which the KFF survey suggests has eluded millions of unvaccinated Republicans, who declare themselves unworried by a disease that should have them very worried indeed.

As Krugman points out, the data-to-date point to a singular consistency common to both the delta and omicron variants of COVID-19: @hile breakthrough infections continue to occur—especially for omicron—“even when vaccinated Americans do get infected they are far less likely than the unvaccinated to be hospitalized—or die.”

Vaccine refusal and denialism has always been with us. In the early 1800s, the fact that vaccines against smallpox were developed from cowpox vaccine prompted opposition from some quarters, including those who suggested (satirically, perhaps) that “cows” might pop out of inoculated human bodies as a result. Back in the 1950s. there were small subsets of the population who criticized and refused the polio vaccine, the distribution of which was instituted in the U.S. on a mass scale in 1955. Those who refused the vaccine at that time also justified themselves with misinformation.

The Atlantic’s Jennie Rothenberg Gritz interviewed Peter Salk, son of Dr. Jonas Salk, who famously developed the polio vaccine, about vaccine denial at that time.

I don’t remember exactly when, but it first came to my attention through some of my friends. I read some of the materials they sent me, and it just was really hard for me to follow some of the logic—particularly when it came to the polio vaccine, which I knew something about. People were claiming that it was all a myth, that the disappearance of polio had nothing to do with vaccines.

The reality is that back in 1954, there was a huge double-blind study involving 1.8 million schoolchildren. The results were clear-cut: If you got the polio vaccine, you were protected; if you didn’t, you were not. When you have that kind of data, you just can’t say that the disappearance of polio is due to other things. What strikes me is—I don’t know quite how to put this, but it’s like there’s an epidemic of misinformation, and we’ve got to inoculate the public against it.

Salk also points out that Americans in the 1950s “really looked to science and medicine as something that would make their lives better.” He believes that the subsequent impact of cultural distrust in government—the lies that sustained the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the War in Iraq, for example—created the underlying mindset for modern Americans to “justify” their opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Krugman, however, believes the roots of distrust and misinformation about  COVID-19 vaccines in particular are nearly entirely political in nature. Like Salk, he notes that the rationales employed in refusing the vaccines are inherently contradictory:

Alert readers will have noticed that these Republican claims, in addition to being false, contradict one another in multiple ways. We can ignore Covid thanks to vaccines, which by the way don’t work. Vaccination is a personal choice, but giving people the information they need to make that choice wisely is a vile attack on their dignity. It’s all about freedom and free markets, but this freedom doesn’t include the right of private businesses to protect their own workers and customers.

So none of this makes any sense — not, that is, unless you realize that Republican vaccine obstructionism isn’t about serving a coherent ideology, it was and is about the pursuit of power. A successful vaccination campaign would have been a win for the Biden administration, so it had to be undermined using any and every argument available.

Of course in the 1950s, there was no corporate right-wing political megaphone such as Fox News, or any social media “alternative universes” to propagate and reinforce such misguided beliefs, let alone profit from them.

If there had been, a large number of people alive in this country today would probably have never been born.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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