Seeing red in the rising covid-19 death toll

Seeing red in the rising covid-19 death toll

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” President John F. Kennedy urged us all in his inaugural address, “ask what you can do for your country.” It is doubtful, however, whether the message these words impart resonates with many Americans today, Republicans especially.

To our everlasting shame, the United States has the most covid-19 deaths of any country in the world—as of this past Sunday, more than 806,000 deaths since January 4, 2020. What we can do for our country right now—what we must do—is get fully vaccinated, meaning including booster shots, wear effectively protective masks when we are in public spaces (not all masks are), and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

In late September, even before the current surge in covid-19 cases, the CDC updated its guidance on masks. It recommends wearing cloth masks that provide a “proper fit over your nose and mouth to prevent leaks,” that have a nose wire and “multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric … that blocks light when held up to [a] bright light source.” The CDC warns against wearing cloth masks with “gaps around the sides of the face or nose,” or masks that have any kind of an opening. It also warns against wearing “single-layer fabric or those made of thin fabrics that don’t block light.” This would also include many if not all so-called anti-covid neckwear.

In September, as well, based on observable evidence, the CDC also updated its findings regarding vaccinations. Vaccinations work, it said, adding that getting everyone in this country fully vaccinated “remain[s] critical to ending the covid-19 pandemic.”

The CDC also noted that although “no vaccines are 100 percent effective,” the currently available vaccines do “provide protection against severe illness and hospitalization among people of all ages eligible to receive them,” and especially “people 65 years and older who are at higher risk of severe outcomes from covid-19.”

Despite what the CDC and many distinguished infectious disease experts tell us, however, too many Americans still refuse to heed their advice, especially when it comes to vaccines and mask-wearing. Most of these nay-sayers (but not all) are Republicans who voted for former President Donald Trump.

This is undeniable. In October, for the fifth month in a row and the last month for which complete statistics are currently available, counties Trump carried by large margins saw three times as many deaths per 100,000 residents than did counties President Joe Biden carried by equally large margins. The disparity has been growing larger each month. The October death rate from covid-19 was 25 out of every 100,000 residents in the heavily Trump counties, compared to 7.8 deaths per 100,000 residents in the heavily Biden counties. The disparity is even greater in the counties where Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote, compared to those where he won at least 60 percent.

If this surprises anyone, it should not. Even now, just a year after the FDA gave emergency approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 11, 2020, nearly 40 percent of Republican adults remain unvaccinated, compared to about 10 percent of Democratic adults. As a result, the United States has one of the lowest vaccination rates among developed nations, which helps explain why it has the most deaths of any country.

That Republicans are disproportionately so resistant to vaccines and mask mandates also should come as no surprise, because they are being encouraged by right-wing media misinformation, by Republican politicians in and out of Congress, and by Republican-appointed federal judges in court after court.

ITEM: On November 6, a panel of three judges on the 5th Circuit—two of whom were appointed by Trump and one by the late President Ronald Reagan—blocked a rule issued a day earlier by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requiring private companies of 100 or more employees to institute mandatory vaccine or weekly testing programs. That ruling was overturned last week by a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit in a 2-to-1 vote, with the one no vote coming from a Trump appointee. The case is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it appears that only three of its six Republican appointees—Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito—seem inclined to reverse mandate restrictions.

ITEM: On November 30, a Trump appointee to the Eastern District Court of Missouri, Judge Matthew T. Schelp, blocked a Biden administration rule requiring health-care workers at facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding to be vaccinated. Bizarrely, at a time when covid-19 cases were again spiking and Omicron, the alarmingly rapidly spreading new “variant of concern,” had reached our shores, Schelp said that “covid no longer poses the dire emergency it once did.” In his decision, and despite anything the CDC or any other authoritative scientific source has published, he even questioned several times whether there was enough evidence to the contrary to warrant such an unprecedented mandate, as he termed it.

ITEM: On December 8, even before the 6th Circuit ruled, Senate Republicans led by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), with the support of two Democrats—Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.)—voted 52 to 48 to overturn OSHA’s workplace rules. The effort apparently was meant to take the matter out of the hands of federal courts.

ITEM: Also on December 8, perhaps out of concern for the outcome of an appeal of Judge Schelp’s ruling, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) led another group of GOP lawmakers in announcing plans to introduce a measure to overturn Biden’s vaccine mandate for all medical professionals.

ITEM: Six days earlier, on December 2, even as covid-19 rates were spiking in New Jersey, a group of Republicans in the State Assembly publicly refused to abide by new rules requiring anyone entering the Statehouse in Trenton to show either proof of vaccination or a negative test result. One of the legislators, Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), shouted: “This is tyranny, folks! America, see what’s happening here!”

Apparently, neither Peterson nor an overwhelming majority of Republicans nationwide see what is happening here. More people are dying here from covid-19 than in any other country. The science is clear. The statistics support the science. What we can do for our country is to follow the science, not reject it. Politics has no place in this pandemic, yet politics is in large part responsible for our inability as a nation to get this dreaded scourge under control. To quote Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, “We don’t really need to be polarized about a virus that’s killing people.”

Most Republicans see mandates for mask-wearing and vaccine-taking as their ticket to retaking the House and Senate next year, and perhaps retaking the White House in 2024. Too many Democrats in government see the same thing, which is why they eased covid-19 restrictions, only to have to reimpose many of them as new spikes occurred across the country, including in our area.

On December 10, for example, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that the statewide seven-day average case rate had increased by 43 percent in the 15 days since Thanksgiving and hospitalizations were up 29 percent. Last week, in fact, the number of statewide covid-19 cases in New York soared to levels never seen since January 2020. As a result, she imposed stricter covid-19 policies, including a mask requirement for all indoor public venues that do not already require proof of vaccination to enter.

Republican legislators and county executives around the state, including the incoming Nassau County executive Bruce Blakemen, were quick to insist that they would refuse to enforce Hochul’s mandate. Hochul, facing an election battle in 2022, lashed out at the Republicans, but said the state would not force counties to comply.

For its part, New York City, where the average case rate was up by 37 percent in November over October, also issued stricter rules, which are scheduled to take effect on December 27. Almost immediately, loud protests came from business owners. The protests were a delight to Republican politicians, despite the evidence staring them in the face.

New Jersey, as noted earlier, also is experiencing a spike in cases. I wrote this column on Sunday morning. Just one day earlier, on Shabbat, New Jersey reported 33 confirmed covid-19 deaths and 6,352 confirmed cases. That marked the third day in a row of more than 6,000 confirmed positive tests, and the first time since the pandemic began that cases exceeded 6,000 three days in a row.

Covid-19 is a killer plague. If people want to risk contracting covid-19, that is their right. The rest of us, however, have the right to be protected from the unvaccinated spreading covid-19.

Risking infection is simply not acceptable under Jewish law, and neither is risking infecting other people. I have noted several times that Rabbi Baruch Meir Yaakov Shochet, the leader of the Karlin-Stolin chasidic sect in Israel, earlier this year condemned those who show “contempt for the lives of others” by refusing to follow covid-19 guidelines, including mask-wearing and vaccinations. “[We] must do it,” he said. “This is the will of God, and we should be happy for the opportunity we’ve been given to protect human life.”

Republicans, as well as a few Democrats—to their shame and ours, as well—apparently are not happy with that opportunity, despite our deplorable record of having the most deaths of any nation (as noted, more than 806,000 deaths to date) and the more than 5.3 million deaths worldwide.

Stay safe, please, and keep the rest of us safe, as well. Wear the right kind of masks in enclosed public spaces. Avoid large indoor gatherings. And, above all, get fully vaccinated, which means also get a booster shot.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is