Column: Right-wing vaccine paranoia could get you killed

People gather near Dodger Stadium in January to protest COVID-19 vaccines, masks and lockdowns.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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On a recent flight from Texas to North Carolina, a woman came so unglued she tried to open the plane’s front door. The flight crew had to bind and gag her with duct tape. This was an extreme example of a disturbing trend in air travel: People are becoming unruly and even hysterical.

I think the chief driver of this phenomenon is attributable to the mental health toll of the pandemic. And it’s not just affecting air travel. I think it’s contributing to spikes in road rage, crime and crazy politics.

Which brings me to the reaction to President Biden’s comments last week.

He explained that we’ve moved out of the wholesale approach to vaccination — mass vaccination centers — and must try retail. “Now we need to go to community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and oftentimes, door to door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to the remaining people,” he said.


This triggered a geyser of paranoia and asininity from much of the American right. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said this amounted to “illegal” intrusions into American privacy. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who called it a “gross abuse of power,” said: “Nowhere in the Constitution does it say, ‘The federal government shall go door to door pushing Americans into vaccine trials.” And these were the sober critics.

Even after the White House explained that federal workers would not be enlisted for this effort, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) warned that this could lay the groundwork to “go door-to-door and take your guns, they could go door-to-door and take your Bibles.” Now that would be unconstitutional.

But going to extraordinary lengths to fight a pandemic isn’t. In 1796, Congress passed “An Act Relative to Quarantine,” authorizing the president “to direct the revenue-officers and the officers commanding forts … to aid in the execution of quarantine, and also in the execution of the health-laws of the states, respectively, in such manner as may to him appear necessary.”

The president was George Washington, a man with some passing knowledge of the Constitution.

But you don’t have to go back centuries to understand federal action is neither illegal nor unconstitutional. Helping localities promote vaccination was part of the March COVID relief package and such efforts have been underway since April.

Besides, what’s actually wrong with going door-to-door to inform people where, how and why they should get vaccinated?

People go door-to-door all the time. The Census Bureau does it (and that is in the Constitution). Campaigns do it, as do churches, charities and activist groups. Supporting local officials and volunteers to promote vaccination is a perfectly reasonable response to an ongoing pandemic — with new strains popping up — that has cost America more than 600,000 lives and trillions of dollars.


You can just say: “Not interested.”

I’m not arguing for the feds to go knocking on doors to promote getting vaccinated — especially now that the right has primed people to be outraged by it. But the hysteria is embarrassing.

It’s also bewildering. When Donald Trump was president, Operation Warp Speed was an own-the-libs triumph. On Nov. 20, Laura Ingraham of Fox News asked: “The stunning success of President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed caught team apocalypse totally off guard. Don’t you love it?” Now she and many other right-wing media figures are engaged in fearmongering over the alleged dangers of vaccines we wouldn’t have were it not for Trump.

At last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Alex Berenson, professional gadfly, said the Biden administration was “hoping they could sort of sucker 90% of the population into getting vaccinated, and it isn’t happening” — and the crowd cheered.

At a time when COVID is spiking among the unvaccinated and 99.5% of COVID deaths over the last several months are among this group, this is depraved. It’s certainly not pro-life.

But as bad as all this is, it would be a mistake to think this is purely a right-wing problem. When Trump was in office, anti-vax sentiment was high among Democrats, including then-Sen. Kamala Harris and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Biden himself raised doubts about a Trump vaccine in a debate. Trump shot back: “You don’t trust Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer?”

After Biden won, vaccine paranoia became largely a right-wing phenomenon — which Trump, who is vaccinated, refuses to push back on. Of course, there’s plenty of other paranoia and hysteria on the left these days, including the alleged resurgence of Jim Crow. But at least that paranoia isn’t getting people killed.


For the anti-vaccine right, it’s as if Joe Biden were the pilot of a plane and they would rather open the door and bail mid-flight if the alternative is being a “sucker” by landing safely.