Trickle down Extremism: Part 3

The Influencers


We have lost the struggle with Covid-19 in Lyon County, where I live in northern Nevada. Last week, 175 of us contracted the virus and ten people died—so far, that is. No matter what the future holds, no matter that the numbers might seem headed in the right direction, these are mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, loved ones of all kinds, whose suffering and deaths cannot be undone. 

The depth of our defeat, in terms of lost lives, lost health, and a lost struggle, becomes all the more obvious, and painful, when you look beyond last week into the grim counts leading up to today. 

This is what losing looks like: Covid-19 infections in Lyon County climbed steadily since the first of August, rising from 150 per week through 200, then 300, to a stunning 466 two weeks ago, 301 a week ago, and now 175. There have been 28 deaths. 

Since the beginning of August, when everyone over 12 became eligible, 3,534 Lyon County residents have gotten fully or partially vaccinated. This moved our vaccination rate for the over-12 population from 44 to 51.5 percent. 

During the same nine-week period, 2,458 people contracted Covid-19. Roughly speaking, for every three people who were vaccinated two others contracted the disease. This is not a winning proposition. 

Even worse, while infections were increasing, vaccinations went in the opposite direction. More than 700 people a week were getting vaccinated at the beginning of August, but that dropped to less than 300 in mid to late September, and 262 last week. Astonishingly, there are weeks when more people in Lyon County contract Covid-19 than get vaccinated. 

To put a finer point on it, just as the more virulent and deadlier Delta Variant spread through the County, fewer people chose to protect themselves against it. This despite the fact that the odds of contracting the disease increase every day. With the vaccination rate at 50 percent, the Delta Variant is still extracting the same toll in sickness and death as the pandemic at its worst—but from a pool of half as many people. 

How can this be happening? We are right back where we were a year ago, when the only tools to fight the disease were masks, social distancing, and lock-downs. So how is this merciless progression happening right in front of us even possible? 

It is, simply, a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Yet those very victims refuse to recognize the danger, or take advantage of the simple, life-saving solution which is theirs for the asking.

There are, I imagine, as many separate reasons for refusing the vaccine as there are people refusing it. But decisions are not made in a vacuum. They are made in a context composed of all sorts of factors, including life experience and, to use an up-to-date, social media-savvy term, “influencers.”

In Lyon County, we have a County Commission and a County Health Officer, all with a broad range of duties. But it is as “influencers” that they are leaving their unfortunate mark in this time of Covid-19. 

Lyon County is often lumped in with Nevada’s rural counties, although a sizeable portion of our population resides in bedroom communities indistinguishable from suburbs anywhere in the state. But like the more traditional “rurals,” we are definitely a red county. We are under the sway of the Trump brand of Republicanism. In fact, Trump won 70 percent of the County’s voters in the last election. 

It turns out the 70 percent mark is also a link to red counties across the nation. To be specific, there is an unfortunate correlation between Trump counties and Covid-19 deaths. Between July 1 and September 10 of this year, the Trump-by-70 percent counties had a Covid-19 death rate of just over 26 per 100,000. Lyon County’s death rate during the same period was just over 36 per 100,000, which actually aligns us with counties going more than 80 percent for Trump.

Also true, counties voting 40 percent or less for Trump had death rates from 5 to just over 12 per 100,000. 

Correlation is not necessarily causation, but with Covid-19 deaths the inevitable consequence of Covid-19 infections, high death rates do reflect high infection rates. And, unsurprisingly, high infection rates correlate with low levels of vaccination

Looking closer, we find Republicans and Democrats starkly divided when it comes to vaccination. This shows up at the state level, whether the electorate is closely divided or slanted toward one party or the other. Nineteen of the 20 states with the lowest vaccination rates were won by Trump, while Biden won 19 of the 20 states, including the District of Columbia, with the highest vaccination rates. 

County by county, vaccination rates in Trump counties are at 40 percent, and 53 percent in Biden counties. For individuals, nationwide studies have shown Republicans lagging behind Independents and Democrats. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 58 percent of Republicans said they were already vaccinated, while 68 percent of Independents and 90 percent of Democrats said they were vaccinated. 

Furthermore, 23 percent of Republicans said they would “definitely not” get vaccinated, while only 11 percent of Independents and a mere four percent of Democrats shared that opinion.     

The conclusion is inescapable. The same people attracted to the Trump brand of Republicanism are the ones not getting vaccinated, and they’re getting sick and dying.  For them, Covid-19 is not the real enemy. The real enemy is the government doctors and scientists and officials—self-important posers whose sole objective is to leverage lockdowns, mask wearing, vaccines, and “mandates” into total control over every aspect of life. 

And where, in all this persuading, are our County Commissioners and County Health Officer? They all enjoy Trump levels of political support. The Health Officer is also the assemblywoman representing a good portion of the County, along with serving as Republican minority leader. 

The burden is not on these officials to stop the Covid-19 pandemic in its tracks, even if that was possible. They have every right to decline, for whatever reason, the role of “influencer” or refuse the bully pulpit offered by their office. Silence wouldn’t help, of course, but it wouldn’t necessarily cause any harm either.

The problem is the County Commissioners have indeed taken to the bully pulpit. They have become enthusiastic “influencers,” but not for the purpose of persuading county residents to protect themselves against the virus. Instead, they have spent a year and a half demonstrating for their constituents’ benefit how unhappy they were with the state’s Democratic governor, and the measures he has taken in response to the pandemic. 

The Commissioners’ preferred vehicle has been a series of “resolutions,” which have tended to fizzle out but not before the point was made, and the message sent. For example, with the famous “Revolution Resolution” from February, the Commissioners granted businesses in Lyon County the option to decide for themselves whether to comply with various state emergency directives regarding masking, social distancing, capacity, etc. The Nevada Attorney General soon disabused them of this notion.  

More recently, a proposed resolution would have ordered the County Manager and District Attorney to explore suing to stop any and all of the Governor’s Emergency Directives “not based in science or medical advice,” among other things. This was based on a seeming contradiction between two directives, oblivious to the fact that they were in reality developed after a thorough consideration of science and medical advice. The not-so-subtle message was that the five Lyon County Commissioners, or anyone off the street for that matter, could do better than the state’s scientists or doctors.  

When the Commissioners weren’t dealing with resolutions, they produced a steady stream of sniping at health officials, misinterpreting statistics, or criticizing each and every one of the Governor’s moves. Par for the course, one Commissioner referred to state health inspectors as “government Nazis.” Another, attempting to impugn the high level of positive test results, questioned the counts because the only people getting tested were those who felt sick. Never mind that a worsening pandemic would produce more sick-feeling people who might want testing. Finally, responding to new mask regulations prompted by the Delta Variant, the Vice Chair of the Commission flatly told his social media followers, “Do not comply.” 

The County Health Officer, as a family physician with many years of practice in Lyon County, has at least taken a more sensible approach. To be clear, she has always supported and encouraged vaccines—not so much masking, and certainly not the shut-downs from the early months of the pandemic. 

But neither has she, as the top health authority in the County, put the full public weight of her office and influence loudly and unequivocally behind the efforts to fight the pandemic. In fact, when the Commissioners met in mid-August as the County Board of Health, with her as Chair, the pandemic was not even on the agenda. It got no more than passing mention, at just the time the Delta Variant was driving infections to new levels. With respect to vaccination, even the Health Officer’s strongest statements in support always come with the caveat that she does not support vaccine mandates. 

And so, our County finds itself mired in a ginned-up conflict between personal freedom and scientific fact and social responsibility. It did not have to be this way. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. 

But that would have required officials with the integrity to risk confronting their constituents’ politically motivated doubts and fears, and turning them toward the real danger. It would have required the sense and persuasive skill to stop emotion from hamstringing the fight against the pandemic. 

Instead, the officials charged with keeping us safe have devoted themselves to legitimizing a fictional portrayal of the fight against the pandemic as tyranny. They have given their constituents the wink and nod they needed to reject everything from simply wearing a mask to taking a life-saving vaccine. All this for the sake of aligning themselves with their ex-president, their party, and what they think Republican voters want from them. It is also, and will sadly continue to be, its own reward. 

Erich Obermayr is an author, community activist, and career archaeologist specializing in sharing historical and archaeological research with the public. He writes about Nevada politics and social issues. He lives in Silver City, Nevada, with his wife.

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