In the week since a Washington state trooper died after a battle with COVID-19, I’d been wondering whether those who’d lionized him for refusing to take the vaccine might engage in a little introspection.
Maybe some doubts would get expressed. Some regret? Or at least some pause to reflect on how two years in, COVID remains a terrible scourge.
There was none.
Former state Trooper Robert LaMay recorded a video last fall telling Gov. Jay Inslee to “kiss my ass,” then quit rather than get two vaccine shots as Inslee was requiring.
This made him a sensation on the right. His video signoff got 2 million views, and he was interviewed twice on Fox News. Including by host Laura Ingraham, who told him he had become a celebrity who had awakened “a sleeping giant” of vaccine resistance around the country.
Well it awakened political opportunists. It turns out LaMay, who died a week ago Friday in Yakima at age 50, was also courted by a string of Republican politicians who apparently saw him as a way to boost their street cred among the MAGA right.
“After my resignation from my position as a Washington State trooper due to Governor Jay Inslee’s unconstitutional vaccine mandates went viral, I was inundated by requests for support from a number of political candidates,” LaMay wrote in a statement in mid-January.
One of these candidates, a Republican running for Congress in Central Washington named Jerrod Sessler, was so enamored with LaMay’s message to the governor that he recruited LaMay to join his campaign. Sessler announced this a few weeks before LaMay died, saying the former trooper had “taken the hearts of Americans by storm” with his salty sign-off.
While Sessler was campaigning in Moses Lake this past week, the topic of the pandemic and the government’s response to it came up. He didn’t reflect on how one of his own campaign workers had just died of the disease. Instead he called for the nation’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, to be hanged.
Sessler said he’d been reading a book by anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr., and that “for anybody who has made it through Chapter 1, you’ll agree with me that we should be building a gallows for Anthony Fauci.”
Sessler continued: “We are literally in the middle of what should be followed up by Nuremberg 2 trials.”
The coronavirus has led to difficult societal trade-offs, some public health efforts that failed, and much personal grief. But this — this derangement in which the people trying to stop the disease’s spread are somehow Nazis — has become one of the sadder subplots in our national tragedy.
It isn’t just politics. It carries with it thousands of totally preventable hospitalizations and deaths.
The state publishes a weekly analysis of COVID health outcomes based on vaccination status. Omicron has punched through vaccine protection more than previous variants, but still about 80% of the hospitalizations and deaths in Washington are among the unvaccinated, even though they make up only about one-quarter of the population.
Another way to look at it is that if the unvaccinated group had gotten the shots, and then gone to the hospital at the same rates as everyone else in the state, about 24,000 of the 32,600 COVID hospitalizations since last spring could have been prevented. Likely 3,500 deaths were also preventable (and more than 240,000 deaths nationwide).
Exactly how much the resistance culture war, fanned by media like Fox News, is to blame for this sickness and death is debatable, but refusing the best tool out there has become a core part of right-wing ideology.
“The vaccine ‘hesitant,’ the vaccine ‘resistant’ and the anti-vaxx are a rising political force in the country — a force that will start to gain power in the primaries,” former top Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon told Politico this past week.
A group that monitors Fox News found that since August, the network has stoked this by featuring 54 people who had refused the vaccine. LaMay took a star turn twice, appearing on a morning “Fox & Friends First” segment, and then again on “The Ingraham Angle” at night. He was part of the network’s near-daily parade of anti-vaccine culture war heroes, one that has rolled on heedless of LaMay’s death.
“It’s like this every single night: Wealthy, vaccinated Fox News hosts explaining to their audiences why it’s heroic not to take free, safe shots that could save their lives,” says Matt Gertz, of Fox News watchdog Media Matters, who wrote about the phenomenon.
My initial view on Inslee’s vaccine mandate was that he should have provided a testing option, as a pressure relief valve if nothing else. But I probably underestimated the COVID derangement. Sessler, the congressional candidate who hired LaMay, has taken to deriding as “authoritarian” even the government’s new program just to mail out coronavirus tests.
“Say YES to America. Not Covid tests,” Sessler posted on Facebook.
So voluntary tests are now un-American too.
The trooper’s story is tragic. But the inability to reckon with it, in service of manufacturing a culture war, is a sickness — a uniquely American one where many of our wounds over this pandemic have been self-inflicted.