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Polarization and pandemic in America

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Local congressman urges social media execs to thwart vaccine misinformation

Last week, President Biden gave a speech at the White House outlining a plan to confront the pandemic while announcing vaccine requirements.

A visibly frustrated Biden addressed the unvaccinated Thursday. “Our patience is wearing thin,” he said, insisting those individuals get the shot as soon as possible.

The plan mandates vaccines for all federal workers and contractors, requires all employees at companies with 100 or more workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly and requires those employers to provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated or to recover, requires vaccinations for over 17 million health care workers at Medicare and Medicaid participating hospitals and other health care settings, calls on large entertainment venues to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, and lays out a plan for a booster shot should it be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.

Republican governors are angry with the new mandates, some even calling for Biden’s impeachment. Proclaiming the move “unconstitutional” and “terrifying,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves wrote on Twitter: “This is still America, and we still believe in freedom from tyrants.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called it “a power grab.” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster promised to fight Biden “to the gates of hell.” Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte called it “unlawful and un-American.” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said he would “pursue every legal option available” to “stop this blatantly unlawful overreach.” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey called the move “outrageous” and “overreaching” and “totally unacceptable,” also promising to fight back. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon asked the state’s attorney general to “stand prepared to take all actions” in opposition to, what he calls, the administration’s “unconstitutional overreach.”

Vaccine mandates are not new in the U.S. and have been upheld before. “The Supreme Court upheld a local health board’s decision to mandate smallpox vaccinations in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905),” writes Vox. “And states routinely require nearly all school-age children to receive a long list of vaccines.”

Further, “there is a strong argument,” argues Vox, that the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 allows the Labor Department to require large employers to encourage vaccinations. “Among other things, that law permits the secretary of labor to issue an ‘emergency temporary standard’ regarding workplace health or safety if they determine that ‘employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful,’ and that such a standard is ‘necessary to protect employees from such danger,’” according to Vox.

The New York Times wrote Monday, “Republican suspicion of vaccines was building before the pandemic; when Donald Trump was running for president in 2016, he rejected established science by raising the debunked claims that vaccines cause autism. Now some of the governors argue that given the country’s outsize divisions and widespread suspicion of Washington, federal intervention would be counterproductive. It would be best, they say, to let state officials continue making the case that the vaccines are safe and effective and to allow people to make decisions themselves.”

A large part of the misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines has been delivered through various social media platforms and has caught the attention of Congress once again.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) urged the chief executives of both Amazon and Facebook to address the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on their respective platforms, as part of a continuing legislative effort to curb anti-vaccine disinformation during a public health emergency. In separate letters to Andy Jassy, chief executive officer of Amazon, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive officer of Facebook, Schiff asked both companies to transparently and thoroughly detail efforts they’ve undertaken to stop content that undermines science and promotes vaccine misinformation to the public.

Congressman Adam Schiff. | Photo by Terry Miller / Hey SoCal

“Vaccine hesitancy fueled by misinformation stands between us and truly ending the COVID-19 pandemic. And nowhere is that misinformation more apparent, potent, and transmissible than on social media and e-commerce sites,” said Schiff after sending the letters. “As the administration of vaccines around the country continues, misinformation is on the rise on major online platforms. But despite some concrete and positive steps previously taken, these companies owe both the public and the Congress additional answers about the exponential and dangerous proliferation of misinformation, and what the platforms are doing to address the viral spread of conspiratorial falsehoods and myths, over good science.”

In the letters to both Amazon and Facebook, Schiff writes:

“Yet even as we see the light at the end of the tunnel, leading public health experts have cautioned that vaccination rates in the U.S. have stagnated, mainly because of vaccine hesitancy. We cannot allow the rapid and dangerous spread of anti-vaccine marketing and misinformation to keep Americans from the valid, factual information they need to protect themselves from this virus.

“… It is the duty of Congress to investigate the challenges our constituents face and whether legislation is needed to ensure their safety. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the health of our communities and the lives of thousands of Americans relying on our ability to achieve herd immunity, I write to you again seeking a more thorough explanation of what [Amazon and Facebook are] doing to mitigate the dangerous spread of vaccine misinformation.”

Currently 53% of all Americans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Yet, despite this tremendous achievement, the Delta variant has surged to devastating new highs among those who remain unvaccinated, bringing America’s COVID-19 rates to levels not seen since 2020’s catastrophic winter surge, before vaccinations became widely available.

In 2019, Schiff sent a letter to Jeffrey Bezos, founder and former CEO of Amazon, and Mark Zuckerberg to express similar concerns about the propagation of general vaccine misinformation on their platforms, prior to the current and ongoing pandemic that has claimed the lives of one in 500 Americans.

“Three-quarters of American adults have had at least one COVID-19 shot, which suggests growing acceptance of the vaccine,” writes The New York Times. “Mr. Biden’s move is aimed at the roughly 80 million Americans who are eligible but remain unvaccinated. Experts call it an unprecedented exercise of presidential authority to encourage vaccination.”

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