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FROM THE EDITOR | If you refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, you're the problem

I've hit my breaking point. And it coincided with a number of factors associated with the delta surge and a few poorly behaved parents attending school board meetings with their crazy conspiracy theories and badly formed definitions of "freedom."
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Mark Sweetwood

A couple of weeks ago, in the morning newsletter, I discussed whether the denial that is so evident among the anti-mask/anti-vaccine folks could be tempered if families would include COVID-19 details in obituaries.

Over the weekend, a former colleague and Vindicator editor Tom Wills shared on Facebook the incredible tribute to Robert L. Allen that was published in the Tribune Chronicle

He was just 35 years old, and the family notes, "This is not an obituary. This is a story about a phenomenal man, and a life cut too short." In loving detail, Robert's exploits, from teenage "shenanigans" to his crush on the girl across the street who he would marry to his career in the United States Army as a combat engineer, are reconstructed. "The void Robert left behind is tremendous, and the silence where his laugh should be is deafening."

And just when you are saddened because a full life of promise was ended so early, you hit this: "As a final note, Robert passed away from complications from COVID-19. He was a healthy young man with no risk factors. COVID is not a joke, it is not a hoax and it does not discriminate. Please, as a final parting gift to Robert, if you have not yet received your COVID vaccine, please do so. The price your loved ones pay for loving you shouldn’t be grief."

I was overcome with emotion. As the pandemic has ebbed and flowed, I have felt both my emotions and my temperament tested. And I've been banging away at this column for the better part of two weeks now. It was an idea in search of a philosophical core. And I found it with Robert's story and the impact such deaths have on all of us.

When it looked like the pandemic was setting in, I fought depression over a friend's death and a feeling of helplessness by doing my part: following the guidance of trusted health officials, epidemiologists, my doctor, etc. When things got better, I took advantage of small doses of "normal" like a meal out, etc. Then things got bad again over the past month or so and the feeling of despair is back.

A few weeks ago, I hit my breaking point. And it coincided with a number of factors associated with the delta surge, including a few poorly behaved parents at school board meetings with their crazy conspiracy theories and badly formed definitions of "freedom." If you follow their logic, they want to be free to do whatever they want to do, including sending their kids to school unmasked. If that impedes other people's freedom — say, to be free of coming in contact with a global pandemic — that's just too bad. I came across this meme the other day: "Insisting on your rights without acknowledging your responsibilities isn't freedom, it's adolescence." 

True freedom, folks, is being alive to complain about your freedom. But as long as so many are in denial and not just uninformed but aggressively and willfully misinformed, this won't end anytime soon. You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem. And to be clear, I'm speaking only to those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccinations, not those truly unable to get the shot because of age or other authentic medical situations.

Reading Robert's obituary helped me to regain my focus on this simple truth: Just like there are not two sides on whether the grass is green or the Earth is round, there are not two sides to the COVID-19 global pandemic. It's real. It's dangerous. Society must confront it with the best tools in our arsenal: masks, vaccines, cleanliness and social distancing.

At Mahoning Matters, we believe news and perspectives serve as robust entry points to knowledge and discussion. We work very hard to be apolitical. We hope to provide folks with information for continued discourse and enlightenment. However, we were not prepared for how politics infiltrated pandemic news. Following science, in some folks' minds, is "liberal." Denying conventional COVID-19 mitigation efforts is "conservative." 

That's ridiculous. Science is apolitical. The virus is apolitical. 

I now feel compelled to forcefully reject often loudly stated mistruths and muddled logic.

For example, in response to David Betras' Aug. 27 column, "Too many people think their right to be stupid trumps our right to be disease-free," I got an email that a year ago I would have politely dismissed. Today, I don't think it's responsible to continue to pretend that EVERY coronavirus opinion has merit. The experts have studied epidemiology for 20 years; the amateurs are Googling sheep dewormer.

So instead of merely dismissing it, here is the reader email from Aug, 27 and my honest reactions:

Reader: I’m so tired of hearing from the vaccinated that they have rights. [Attorney] Betras blaming the unvaccinated making his life and others so miserable, stating about their rights. Well, I’d like to say that the unvaccinated also have the right not to get injected if they so choose with all vaccines still not approved by the FDA.
Me: Never have so many people done so little and expected so much. Most of us have done the right things to end this: masked, socially distanced, stayed home, got vaccinated, etc. Others have done literally nothing but spread this virus. By not getting vaccinated, you are making this worse for everyone. And the Pfizer vaccine was approved Aug. 23. Please come up with a new talking point.

Reader: If he and others were honest enough, they’d see that unvaccinated Americans should not be blamed for the brunt of things. 
Me: I had a reader ask me recently why we couldn't just quarantine the unvaccinated. I think that's a great idea. About 98 percent of those hospitalized in Ohio this year for COVID-19 are unvaccinated people. The unvaccinated are responsible for almost all new cases, all the clogged hospitals, all the mask mandates/debates, etc. YOU. ARE. RESPONSIBLE. And if someone is denied treatment for a non-COVID-19 issue because the hospitals are over-run or the staff is over-taxed, vaccine refusers are responsible for that, too.

Reader: Our southern border is wide open with illegals coming in, they are not vaccinated and not tested. Who knows what variant they are bringing into our country. Seems there is a new one being labeled often.
Me: Pick an argument: Either there is a pandemic and vaccines matter and everyone should get them to stop the spread OR the pandemic is no big deal, vaccines don't matter and everyone should have the freedom to do whatever they want. Pick one. But you don't get to be pro-vaccine ONLY in the case of racial fear-mongering. That's not how a global pandemic works. That IS a Fox News talking point, however. Parroting something you heard on TV is not stating an original thought.

Reader: Maybe if the issue was presented in a less bullying manner, and all the vaccines be approved, more would be likely to comply. 
Me: I have sat through COUNTLESS state press briefings in the past 18 months in which Gov. Mike DeWine and state health officials have talked to you in caressing, soothing baby-talk-tones and dumbed the information down to a third-grade level. It's insulting to MY intelligence, frankly. And, yet, it has had no impact on you. 

There. While I feel better, I have to ask myself: Will that help that person? Probably not. Perhaps this part of Robert's obituary will have some impact: "Robert parted this Earth on August 30, 2021 surrounded by his beloved wife, two youngest children, and two childhood friends. They held his hands and stroked his hair while telling him how incredibly loved he is, and told him [to] imagine his final moments on the beach at sunset with his wife in his arms and his children by his side."

Devastating. 

Need more truth? Did you hear the story of YouTube stars Tristan and Dusty Graham from "Alabama Pickers?" Check out their YouTube video at the 41:00 minute mark, and listen as they share their vaccination refusal and even vaccine myths.

And guess what — they both caught COVID-19. Tristan died, and Dusty is on a ventilator, according to a post Tuesday from Dusty's daughter Windsor on Facebook. There is a GoFundMe for funeral expenses for Tristan.

I do hope for a full recovery for Dusty, but the reality is: How do you fully recover if your spouse and best friend dies and you could have played a role in preventing it? I'm sure he regrets his uninformed views on the vaccine and would do anything to turn back the clock and get his wife back. But, like many of you, he didn't listen to the right people. And it's too late.

Everyone hates wearing masks and getting shots. But it's time to face reality. If you do not know the difference between legitimate news and propaganda; if you don't know the difference between actual medical officials and medical heretics; if you can't discern between news that informs you and fiction that feeds your confirmation bias; if you believe your ability to read an item on Facebook equates with a medical professional's 20 years of research, go find a mirror. You are the problem. 

And, sadly, you are the next potential casualty.

I don't want to write about you next. Honest, I do not. I am tired of writing and editing stories about this damned pandemic. But I will — or someone like me will — get the last word on your bad decision. Get the shot if, for no other reason, to spite me.

Still not convinced? Then go back and read Robert's obituary and feel his family's grief. It's palpable.

Consider doing something before your family is forced to write similar words about you. People close to you have already told you to get the vaccine because they care. They are right. You have nothing left at this point but stubborn rationalizations. There's not another side to this. Listen to them. Today.

— Mark Sweetwood is local editor of Mahoning Matters.

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