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Learning From Our Herd Immunity Failure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
May 24, 2021

A recent New York Times piece questioned whether reaching herd immunity from COVID-19 is even possible in the United States. After a year of disruptions in all aspects of life, and news of the vaccine rollout struggles in countries like India, Brazil and Canada, it seems incredible that so many Americans simply do not wish to be vaccinated. But the vaccine hesitancy among a substantial portion of the population is real. The questions are why, and what can we in the Public Administration (PA) community learn from this reality?

The situation strikes me as similar to so many of the classic case studies in PA. We know the problem and we know the solution, yet we cannot seem to implement it. I think back to John Barlow Martin’s case study of the Centralia mine disaster. The risk of tragedy at the Centralia mine was clear. Regulators knew that the mine would explode, and understood precisely why it would explode. Regulators even issued orders, and penalties for non-compliance with those orders. Yet, the fundamental problem was not resolved, and the inevitable tragedy occurred.

The Centralia mine disaster highlights how rational bureaucratic systems struggle to deal with fundamentally irrational situations. From the start, the United States’ COVID-19 response was plagued by a similar struggle. The rational bureaucratic actors include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as state and local health departments. These bureaucratic actors gave consistent scientifically-supported advice: Wear face coverings, avoid crowds and quarantine for two weeks after a known exposure. In many places the advice was translated into public policies using statutes and ordinances that can be traced back to the 1918 Influenza pandemic.

The rational policy responses, however, butted head with the irrational politics of the time. The missteps began early with the Trump administration’s attempt to downplay the extent of the crisis, which culminated in the now infamous press conference at which the then-president speculated on the efficacy of injecting bleach into people’s lungs as a COVID-19 treatment. The inconsistent, and at times objectively wrong, information emanating from the White House trickled down to the state and local levels. From the start, the national COVID-19 response created a fertile breeding ground for politicization and conspiracy mongering.

In my home state of Wisconsin, schools were closed for in-person instruction while bars stayed open. A statewide masking order was overturned on a technicality, with no realistic attempt to replace the order with legislative action. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson held hearings on the disproven hydroxychloroquine, and later falsely implied that 3,000 people had died from taking COVID-19 vaccines. We lost our collective minds over masks, misinterpreted HIPAA and emergency use authorizations for vaccines, and too often trusted “common-sense” pseudoscience from Facebook and YouTube instead of objective scientific expertise.

Simply put, over the last year our rational bureaucratic institutions were no match for the irrational partisan and cultural divisions in American society. These divisions are evident in vaccination rates, which are correlated with ideology and locale. On the face of it, the situation makes no sense, as a virus has no ideology or culture. Democrats and Republicans alike have suffered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the suffering is still being prolonged by our national divides.

To answer the “why” question from the first paragraph: The irrational human problem of political and cultural division is undermining the rational path to vanquishing COVID-19. Demonstrating that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and making them available to all, is not enough to actually reach herd immunity. So what can be done about it? To be honest, I am not so sure. There are certainly small steps that can be taken to incentivize vaccinations, as well as to address hesitancy tied to language and cultural issues. But the larger challenge for the PA community is restoring faith in rational governance. That is where I think there are lessons to be learned.

Moving our country forward requires that we acknowledge the depth of the cultural divide in American society. Vaccine hesitancy is about so much more than politics; it is another consequence of the deep distrust so many Americans have in their governing institutions. No amount of messaging can change minds if people do not trust the messenger. While some of the emerging cognitive-based PA research is important, its utility depends on our field’s willingness to engage in the larger questions of trust and legitimacy. If we do not make progress in answering those questions, we will face crises after crises in which a rational governing response is rejected for fundamentally irrational reasons.


Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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