WH Christmas message to unvaccinated: You're looking at a winter of death for yourselves and your families

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

They’re brimming with yuletide good cheer this year, eh?

It’s strange why certain things go viral online when they do. Jeff Zients, the White House COVID czar, made these remarks three days ago. The president himself said the same thing, nearly verbatim, on camera a day earlier. Yet only last night did the political commentariat notice and collectively say, “Geez.”

I think it’s cute how everyone still wants to believe that messaging on vaccination might matter a full year after the shots began rolling out.

Nuzzi’s right, of course. Tone is important. If your goal is to persuade the unvaccinated to get their shots, accusing them of being killers is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. Some unvaxxed may treat it as a dare: “I bet if I get COVID I’ll be fine, living proof that Joe Biden is a liar and a COVID hysteric.” Nearly everyone who makes that bet will win it. But not quite everyone.

The White House’s goal at this point isn’t to persuade the unvaccinated, though. Anyone who’s held out this long is unpersuadable by rhetorical appeals. The only way they’ll get the shot now is if they’re subject to a mandate or if they’re scared into it as the winter wave crests. Ron Klain isn’t even pretending to care about the feelings of the unvaccinated at this point:

Biden and Zients may have been less politic about it but in substance they’re saying nothing different from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who earned applause on the right recently for refusing to order a new mask mandate in his state. The emergency phase of the pandemic ended once vaccines became widely available, Polis argued. If you’re too stubborn or ignorant to get one and save yourself, he’s not going to try to save you. “You don’t tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to [wear it]. If they get frostbite, it’s their own darn fault,” he explained. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, that’s your choice. I respect that. But it’s your fault when you’re in the hospital with COVID.”

Read Zients’s comments above again, as there are two parts to his message. He’s guilt-tripping the unvaccinated, yeah, but he’s also signaling that the vaccinated shouldn’t have their lives disrupted anymore with new restrictions. That’s Polis’s point precisely.

Of course, unlike him, the White House is trying to save people who won’t save themselves via the federal vaccine mandate. But Biden, Zients, and Klain doubtless realize by now that the odds of the mandate surviving a SCOTUS challenge are low. The new message about the unvaccinated and their “winter of death” isn’t designed to persuade the unpersuadable, it’s designed to counter Republican attacks that Biden has bungled the pandemic response and failed to “shut down the virus.” We’ve failed because the unvaccinated won’t get the g-ddamned shot, Team Joe is saying. And everyone knows by now which of the two parties the average unvaccinated person is more likely to belong to.

If I’m right that the only way to convince the unvaccinated to get their shot is to scare them into it, the White House should be getting ahead of framing the data we’re likely to see next month confirming that Omicron is much less deadly than previous variants. That information is apt to further discourage the unvaxxed from getting their shots; if they’ve made it this far in the pandemic without dying, why would they suddenly agree to be immunized against a less lethal strain? And what good will the shots do them against a variant whose signature feature is its ability to puncture immunity?

The two points to impress upon them are (a) we have little sense of how severe Omicron will be when it infects people with no immunity and (b) Omicron isn’t the only threat out there. It might not replace Delta in the population but rather circulate side by side with it. Someone who dispenses with all precautions in the belief that COVID is now “milder” and who then runs into Delta instead of Omicron will learn the truth the hard way. For instance, I’m guessing nearly all of the hospitalizations seen here are products of Delta infections, not Omicron. The data speaks for itself.

“Delta is still surging” is one point the White House could make. Another would be to highlight the community threat from Omicron (and Delta) by putting elderly and immunocompromised people in ads pleading with the public to get boosted to help protect the most vulnerable. Unless Omicron is really mild, nursing homes are at dire risk:

Finally, they could highlight doctors and nurses who are currently besieged by Delta cases and are now having to miss work due to being infected by Omicron, leaving their hospitals even more understaffed:

Would any of this work? Likely not. Strategies to guilt the resolute unvaccinated have been tried all year. The fact that some hospitals are having trouble coping with their current patient load is proof enough that “flatten the curve” no longer moves holdouts to get immunized. Warning them that they’re at higher risk of hospitalization by showing them graphs like Chovanec’s also won’t penetrate much, as it’s been common knowledge for months that the unvaccinated are much more likely to have a severe case. Anyone who’s tuned that out thus far won’t have it hit home suddenly now. The only things that work on the unvaxxed are mandates and, possibly, seeing someone that they know fall desperately ill from COVID. The fact that the White House is trying to blame the unvaccinated for the coming wave rather than persuade them shows that they seems to grasp that hard reality too.