What happened to Hot Vax Summer? The unvaccinated

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A Hot Vax summer of hookups, sweaty bars, 2 a.m. Taco Bell runs, and other regrettable decisions is feeling more and more like a daydream. But while many have blamed the highly contagious Delta variant for messing with our plans of horniness on main, the New York Times pointed out that we probably wouldn’t see the rise in Delta, or any variant for that matter, if not for a more insidious culprit: vaccine hesitancy and refusal.

We know that vaccines protect us from being hospitalized or dying of COVID-19, per the Times, and the U.S. has plenty of them to go around. Still, roughly 30% of the adult population hasn’t gotten even one dose of the jab, the newspaper reported — a figure that’s higher still in some regions of the country.

Now responsible for around 83% of cases in the U.S., the Delta variant has swept across the globe at a dizzying pace. But Delta may not even be the scariest variant we'll see. The point is that the more people who become infected, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate into a new variant, the Times explained. As long as millions of people refuse to get the vaccine, remain on the fence about it, or simply can’t access it, the newspaper noted, this scenario will continue to be a possibility.

“Viruses don't mutate if they can't replicate, and you can prevent them from replicating by vaccinating enough people so that the virus has nowhere to go," Dr. Anthony Fauci told NPR.

And while experts now refer to the pandemic as “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” the emergence of new variants could impact vaccinated people, too. Although breakthrough infections — that is, infections in fully vaccinated people — are thought to be exceedingly rare with the original virus, they may be more common with its cousin, Delta. While people with breakthrough infections typically have little to no symptoms, they might become sick enough to miss work, the Times pointed out. Experts fear that some may even develop long COVID-19, in which symptoms last for months.

The situation is especially worrisome for people with immune systems weakened by HIV, cancer, and other conditions, who are at higher risk of breakthrough infections, per CNBC. They’re also more likely to come down with severe COVID-19 and spread it to others.

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If cases keep climbing, the Times noted, all of us could see a return to school and workplace closures, as well as other restrictions. But the newspaper noted that unless the U.S. imposes a federal vaccine mandate — or enough colleges, hospitals, and companies establish their own — we’ll probably never be completely free of the virus’s grasp.

Among the 39% of adults in the country who are unvaccinated, about half are unwilling, the Times said, but even they'd get the jab if it was required. Some might agree if someone they trusted convinced them, while others just haven't gotten around to it.

The Times blamed a complex array of factors for languishing vaccination rates, including conservative leaders refusing to encourage vaccination — or, like Senator Rand Paul and Tucker Carlson, repeatedly voicing skepticism of it. Eighty-six percent of Democrats have gotten at least one dose of the jab, per a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, versus only 52% of Republicans.

But politics isn’t the only factor. The Times noted that misinformation from all sides runs rampant on social media. Racial disparities play a role, too. For example, only 75% of adults in predominantly white Princeton, New Jersey are vaccinated, while only 45% of adults are vaccinated in neighboring Trenton, which is mostly Black and Latinx, former CDC director Richard Besser told the Times. “Both are strong Democratic areas, so it’s really important to break things down and to address the issues that are impeding vaccination progress in each segment of the unvaccinated population,” he said.

The U.S.’s ugly history of medical experimentation on Black Americans and the racism in its health system are among that factors that’ve fueled distrust of the vaccine in communities of color. But as PBS pointed out, attributing racial disparities in vaccination solely to hesitancy glosses over barriers to access in these communities — like people having no one else to care for their kids or other family members if vaccine side effects leave them sidelined.

That said, we can’t completely ignore the role of politics in the country’s lagging vaccination rates, per the Times. Somewhat encouragingly, the newspaper reported that Senators Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney have both insisted that everyone get the jab. But it’ll take a louder, larger chorus of influential voices to nudge people over their hesitation, so that all of us can finally get off this COVID-19 carousel ride.