Even if intensive medical care had been immediately available, Ray DeMonia might still have died just shy of his 74th birthday. A resident of the north Alabama town of Cullman, DeMonia had suffered a stroke more than a year ago, and he had a bad heart.
On the other hand, he might have lived to celebrate another year if unvaccinated patients had not flooded Alabama hospitals with COVID cases. When DeMonia fell ill on Aug. 23, his family took him to Cullman Regional Hospital, the town’s general care facility. (In small towns like Cullman, hospitals often lack intensive care units.) His daughter told The Washington Post that the staff there called 43 hospitals before they found an intensive care bed for him in Meridian, Mississippi, where he died on Sept. 1.
This is what vaccine resistance looks like here in Trump Country, where a contagion of misinformation, hyperpartisan allegiance and wrongheaded political leadership have exacerbated the COVID pandemic and greatly increased the death toll. Alabama has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates — according to the Alabama Department of Health, only about 40% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.
Public health experts and exhausted physicians have pleaded with the public to get the shots, but the vaccination rate has barely budged. That leaves people like DeMonia, who was vaccinated but had an unrelated health crisis, in dire straits.
You might have expected Gov. Kay Ivey to respond to the crisis by extending the mask mandate and appearing regularly at press conferences to urge residents of her state to get the vaccine. A few months ago, Ivey seemed ready to turn her ire on those irresponsible enough to resist science. “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down,” she told reporters.
But the Republican governor took heat for those remarks from the right-wing peanut gallery — especially the flat-earthers at Fox News — so she made her way back to the safer political ground of ignoring public health experts and denouncing President Joe Biden. In June, she announced that she would seek a second full term as governor, and the surest route to reelection is to travel with the Trump sycophants.
Never mind that Alabama — like other COVID-swamped states — has had to seek federal assistance to staff its hospitals. Rapid-response medical teams deployed by the federal government have been sent to several Alabama facilities that are overrun by patients sick with COVID. Ivey didn’t mention that in her tirade against the Biden administration.
Instead, she joined the GOP governors who have vowed to challenge Biden in court over his vaccine mandates for millions of workers. Her rejoinder to the president — who had talked about moving recalcitrant governors “out of the way” — had unfortunate historic overtones.
“You bet I’m standing in the way. And if he thinks he’s going to move me out of the way, he’s got another thing coming. I’m standing as strong as a bull for Alabama against this outrageous Washington overreach. Bring it on,” she tweeted.
Unhappily, her insistence on “standing in the way” sounded much like George Wallace, the Alabama governor who became infamous for standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent Black students from entering. Ivey claimed that she will continue to urge the state’s residents to get the vaccine, but “we’re never going to mandate it.” Her insistence on voluntary cooperation is also reminiscent of a period in Southern history when segregationist politicians insisted they were not defending the cruelty of Jim Crow but rather “states’ rights” to impose it.
“This is a fight for businesses, our hardworking men and women, and our American liberties,” Ivey said.
I have a distinct memory of Southern governors who fought to preserve “liberties” for some but not for others. Current Southern politicians have found another way to highlight the “liberties” of their right-wing supporters over the rights of the rest of us. What about the freedom of children too young to be vaccinated? What about the freedom of Ray DeMonia to receive the medical care he needed?
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007.