DANIEL VAUGHAN: The upcoming fight over vaccinations will make masks seem quaint

Mask mandates are being implemented by more and more public and private participants. Walmart and Kroger are the latest and largest retailers to mandate masks upon entry. States, counties, and local school boards are weighing PPE orders, too.

While predictable, the political backlash to these moves emphasizes the next major flashpoint in the culture war — one that will likely be even worse: COVID-19 vaccinations and whether to mandate them.

The imminent cultural battle over coronavirus vaccines is the natural evolution of the mask debate. We’ve already seen conspiracy theories suggesting prospective vaccines involve 5G or Bill Gates.

When the government faces mandating vaccines or issuing antibody passports to citizens, those conspiracies will come into full bloom, and the battle over masks is going to look quaint in hindsight.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield told an interviewer with the Journal of the American Medical Association, “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really do think over the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control.”

He went on: “Masking is not a political issue, it’s a public health issue. It really is a personal responsibility for all of us.”

The last part is correct — masking shouldn’t be a political issue. Our top public health goal is to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible. The first part, though? That’s untrue. If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that COVID-19 has been unpredictable. We’ve experienced twists and turns that have taught us new things about epidemiology and disease spread.

For example, it’s impossible to know if cities like New York, where Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking bizarre victory laps, will enter a second wave. We don’t know that because we’re reasonably sure no U.S. city or state has herd immunity from the virus, which is when enough people have virus antibodies to prevent the spread of it.

According to Johns Hopkins University, “Depending how contagious an infection is, usually 70% to 90% of a population needs immunity to achieve herd immunity.” The former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, said that scientists’ best guess right now is that only 25% of New York City citizens showed antibodies to the virus, as CNBC reports. In other words, even New York — which the left calls a victory — is still at risk of a relapse.

All of this brings us back to Redfield telling people that four to six to eight weeks of mask-wearing could change things. Would mask-wearing helping contain the spread? Absolutely. Will mask-wearing curb the virus to such an extent in four to eight weeks that we’re safe from the virus? Absolutely not. We won’t be clear of this virus until we have either a mass-producible vaccine or a drug therapy that renders the infection less meaningful.

We have good news on the vaccine front. The latest results from 45 volunteers who received a dose of a vaccine in March finally came back with extremely positive news. The next step is a much broader vaccine study involving 30,000 people. But the results will take time and research, both of which are much farther away than eight weeks.

So does that make Redfield a liar on masks? No! He’s — correctly — trying to encourage mask-wearing. Public health demands we slow the spread and keep the health care system from getting slammed by COVID-19 patients. Wearing a mask is one of many preventative measures all Americans should perform in service to their country. This virus is a moment when America’s success depends on the actions of individuals, not politicians or power.

But because people refuse to buy into this notion of service to country, we instead will continue to suffer a prolonged affliction with the virus, at least until a vaccine arrives. And that’s the problem. People are going to refuse to get a vaccine, just as they’ve rejected masks. All levels of government, federal, state, and local will face the same choice. Do you order mandatory vaccines?

It’s not a question of the government having the power to order mandatory vaccinations. It has that power. Authority to mandate vaccines has been litigated multiple times, and the Supreme Court has upheld both state interests and power. It’s unlikely modern lawsuits would change that case law, except the legality of specific exemptions.

The government has a very straightforward argument supporting mandatory vaccinations (all of which also apply to masks). This virus has crippled the economy, harmed state finances, and created more discord than any other event in recent history. Eliminating COVID-19 is easily within the government’s power to pursue.

That doesn’t mean people won’t clash with their elected officials to avoid getting vaccinated.

In the alternative, if we don’t end up with the vaccination debate, it’ll likely be because we’ve achieved herd immunity because everyone got infected.

The number of viable paths forward for the U.S. when it comes to COVID-19 are dwindling, not expanding. The virus may not be predictable, but human nature is. Right now, that specific strain of human nature is bucking our capacity to defeat a virus.