The tragedy of deathbed vaccine regrets

Ann empty bed.
Ann empty bed. Illustrated | iStock
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The most recent surge of COVID in the United States has bred a new type of narrative — call it the "vaccination regrets" genre. These stories feature people who didn't get the vaccine, were often aggressive in mocking those who chose to get their shots, then came to regret their choices as they got sicker and sicker, and then died. You probably recognize some of the names and stories. Phil Valentine, the conservative Nashville talk show host, died this weekend after once recording a Beatles parody called "Vaxman." Scott Apley, a Texas Republican, died earlier this month after calling a vaccine-promoting health official "an absolute enemy of a free people." There has been and will be more of this kind of coverage. Much of it is laden with schadenfreude, a just barely hidden sense of glee. There is something ugly about it all.

Within the "regrets" genre a particularly heartbreaking type of tale has also emerged, about parents who have died and left their kids to grow up without a father, a mother, or both.

There is Josh Tidmore, an Alabamian who died on Aug. 11, leaving three kids behind. He once posted online that he didn't "believe 99.9% of what's said about this virus." His wife, Christina, is now pleading with other families to get vaccinated. "Nobody should go through this," she told the Associated Press. "He was only 36 and I'm 35 and we have three kids."

There is also Cindy Dawkins, an unvaccinated mother of four who died of COVID earlier this month. Now her children — two adults, a 15-year-old, and a 12-year-old — are fighting to keep the family together. "We're in survival mode right now, trying to make sure that we have everything situated with the two younger siblings, getting guardianship and everything over them so we all can stay together," said Jenny Burrows, Dawkins' 24-year-old daughter.

And there is Michael Freedy, an unvaccinated 39-year-old who left behind five children ranging in age from 17 months to 17 years old. As he became aware of the severity of his illness, his fiance told the Sacramento Bee, Freedy became frantic. "He's panicking, saying how he doesn't wanna die and he doesn't wanna leave his babies without a dad," she said. Unfortunately, that's precisely what he did.

These kinds of stories are also increasingly common. (Sometimes they even cross over: Apley, the Texas Republican, had a newborn son who will never know his father.) And I don't point them out to mock or disparage the families involved — they deserve our unmitigated sympathy and support. But these deaths, and deaths like them, are unnecessary tragedies of choice.

Every parent who chooses not to get vaccinated is indeed responsible for that choice, and every choice has a different story behind it — but it is also the case that there is a political-media ecosystem that has been dedicated to encouraging and defending vaccine hesitancy. To a large degree, anti-vaccine and anti-mask sentiment have become markers of conservative identity that will be difficult to dislodge. "Humans are equipped with some of evolution's finest mental circuitry to protect us from changing our minds when doing so might alienate us from our group," Jonathan Rauch observes in his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge. "We have hundreds of thousands of years of practice at believing whatever will keep us in good standing with our tribe, even if that requires denying, discounting, rationalizing, misperceiving, and ignoring the evidence in front of our nose." The processes that have led to widespread vaccine aversion among Republicans is, if nothing else, profoundly human — something to be both mourned and opposed.

But one of the profoundest duties of parenthood is to put aside your own nonsense for the sake of your child's welfare. That includes dispensing with ideological baggage when necessary. In the case of COVID, that doesn't just mean protecting your children directly from the virus — though that is extremely important, given how the Delta variant has led to a rise in pediatric hospitalizations across the South and Midwest. It also means taking care of yourself and avoiding unnecessary risks so that you can be around to provide your child with the sustenance, care and comfort they need while growing up.

It means getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, even if you don't want to.

Maybe you're an unvaxxed parent. Perhaps you're worried about the side effects of the shot, or simply think COVID isn't a big threat. Maybe you just don't like other people telling you what to do. All I can tell you is that the numbers don't lie, and they say the vast majority of people fighting and dying of COVID in America's hospitals are unvaccinated, and at this point they're often not that old. The bottom line is unavoidable.

As always, the decision to vaccinate is not simply a personal choice. It affects everybody who depends on or cares for you. We're getting fresh stories on a regular basis from families who regret a loved one's choice not to protect their health. For the love of your children, parents: Please get your shots.

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