Few things are as American as football. Sadly, public health has become a political football — in the worst way possible.
Last week, Southern powerhouse Louisiana State University announced it would require proof of Covid-19 vaccinations or a recent negative test for fans attending Tigers games this season. Somewhere around 40 percent of Louisiana residents are fully vaccinated, according to The New York Times, and new reported cases have increased sharply since July — and with them pandemic hospitalizations and deaths.
LSU mandating vaccinations is a great step, especially in a region where college football is a cultural touchstone. But why not go further?
LSU mandating vaccinations is a great step, especially in a region where college football is a cultural touchstone. But why not go further? The rest of the SEC could follow suit. And then every other conference. If you want to eat out or travel, you should have to be vaccinated, just like we require people, based on data about public health, to wear seatbelts in cars. If that’s what it takes to vaccinate enough of the population to prevent another deadly mutation of the virus like delta, I’m all in. Roll Tide.
But so far, this is not happening. In states like Alabama, the Legislature has banned the use of “vaccine passports” and specifically prohibited vaccine requirements in connection with attendance at “educational institutions.” The litany is, we live in two Americas, hopelessly divided, incapable of finding a shared set of facts even around scientific knowledge in a deadly pandemic. We have to move past that view. Because if Americans cannot come together to beat Covid-19, how are we going to restore public consensus around shared democratic values and what good government and good leaders look like?
Instead of giving up, it’s time to do what Americans have often done best when times are most difficult — dig deeper and find a way to get it done. We owe it to our bone-weary doctors and nurses, but we also owe it to our children and the future of the American experiment.
We can do this first and foremost by redefining the relationship between public health and government in this country. Public health experts have to regain their credibility in precisely the same way the Justice Department must re-establish its independence from the White House. While setting policy goals can be a shared responsibility among public health and federal, state and county executives they work with, they must have complete independence when it comes to making assessments of where the weight of scientific evidence points.
We have to take politics out of the public health equation, and protect the independence of public health experts. Agencies must establish rigid internal norms that prevent politicians from commingling facts with politics. That may not be easy. But the Justice Department recovered after the abuses of Watergate because men and women of strong character refused to give up.
As ambassador, senator and advisor to presidents, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” The ability to impose alternative facts on a large segment of the country is what has led us to the point. Sean Spicer’s news conferences don’t seem nearly as funny at a time when Americans are ingesting livestock dewormers because of the (false) belief that they will protect against Covid-19. It’s possible to connect the dots between Kellyanne Conway’s infamous 2017 “alternative facts” appearance on “Meet the Press” and the FDA’s official Twitter account plea this week: “You are not a horse.”
We need more of these no-nonsense, evidence-based narratives that ridicule fake, and even dangerous, treatment. We need more coaches like Jackson State’s Deion Sanders, who promoted vaccination in Mississippi, and Charles Barkley, who told Auburn fans that getting vaccinated is "the right thing to do. We’ve got to stop being selfish.”
There is established precedent for permitting the government to impose vaccine mandates. In United States v. Jacobson in 1905, the Supreme Court held that states could enforce mandatory vaccine laws, because one’s liberty is not absolute in the face of a public health hazard. And George Washington, in a time with less scientific consensus, required his soldiers to vaccinate against smallpox. The notion that commonsense public health measures are an affront to individual liberty is a manufactured manipulation, one that has done us enormous collective harm.
Public health officials can, with support from local and federal government as well as businesses, law enforcement, sports stars, educators and community leaders, rebuild a strong consensus that remains unflinching in the face of conspiracy theories and junk science. We’ve been far too solicitous of bad, even dangerous opinions. Americans should never again wake up to nightmarish news reports about people who ignored the vaccine or, worse, refused it, only to fall ill and issue deathbed warnings for their friends and family.
It’s time for a reset. Americans need to remember what facts are, and why they matter. No matter how difficult, even impossible it might look, it’s essential that we find our way back to a place where public health is no longer politicized.
“Everyone has a right to make their own decisions regarding their health and their body,” said Dallas Cowboys owner (and lifelong Republican) Jerry Jones last week. “I believe in that completely — until your decision as to yourself impacts negatively many others. Then the common good takes over.”
Right now, we need the kind of leadership that lets people who’ve gotten used to letting their political differences define them come back together. If that means getting vaccinated so you can be there for game day, state governments should make it happen. For those who grew up idolizing the Bo Jacksons, Walter Peytons, Archie Mannings and Joe Namaths, commonsense advice may be easier to accept coming from the people who coach the sport.
In the Deep South, where vaccine resistance and unproven treatments seem to have taken hold among some people, folks know a normal football season can’t happen if Covid-19 is out of control. The shared desire to see the snap of the football could be the thing that finally persuades people to roll up their sleeves.