The day after Gov. Phil Murphy’s verbal takedown of a group of anti-vaccination demonstrators, messages of support from friends, other politicians, and community leaders all over the world were still coming in.
Wednesday’s outburst at a North Jersey news conference — which quickly went viral — wasn’t planned, the governor said. It was a simple decision to push back against people who spread lies about the coronavirus vaccine.
“Frankly, enough is enough,” he said in an interview Thursday with The Inquirer. “The irresponsibility, the amount of people who are getting sick and dying because of these people believing in falsehoods — they need to be called out.”
The governor’s criticism of the anti-vaxxers — his sharpest remarks since the virus’ resurgence and a striking example of a state leader confronting critics amid a national wave of coronavirus disinformation — embodied the frustration growing among many vaccinated Americans. Some tweeted at Murphy as he began trending on Twitter, with people who said they lived in states such as Arkansas and Oklahoma asking if they could “borrow” the governor.
As the delta variant drives up new cases and a realization sinks in that the pandemic is not over, the tension is bubbling over. The fear of a pandemic backslide — particularly among those who got vaccinated after months of sacrifice and precaution — is prompting impatience and even anger.
A township supervisor from Bucks County was cited for harassment this week after allegedly using a “Masks Saves Lives” sign to intentionally hit an opponent of masking at a heated news conference. Debates over vaccination and masking have become so tense at meetings of school boards and local government bodies that the Bucks County district attorney says local officials have been increasingly requesting the presence of police officers.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said governors who aren’t promoting vaccination in states with rising case counts, such as Florida, should help or “get out of the way.” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, said last month that it was time to start “blaming the unvaccinated,” saying she had “done all I know how to do” to try to increase vaccinations.
Murphy, a Democrat seeking reelection in November, was speaking Wednesday in Union City, where he signed legislation to prevent evictions and provide utility assistance for renters. When he urged vaccination, as he does at most appearances, a group of protesters began heckling him, waving signs that bore slogans such as “No forced injections.”
“These folks back there have lost their minds — you’ve lost your minds!” an agitated Murphy said in a moment livestreamed on his YouTube channel. “You are the ultimate knuckleheads! And because of what you are saying and standing for, people are losing their life!”
After the video was shared by NJ.com, Murphy began trending on Twitter; many commenters saw him as a stand-in for their own frustration. Steven Van Zandt, the legendary guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and former Sopranos star, tweeted the video and added, “Right on Phil!”
Critics said the aggressive pushing of vaccines was government overreach, with one describing the moment as a “hissy fit.” Republican Phil Rizzo, who ran an unsuccessful primary bid for governor, tweeted: “If you ever wondered what Phil Murphy thought of personal autonomy ... Wonder no more.”
The end ‘keeps moving’
For many vaccinated people, the frustration is underpinned by multiple factors: an exhaustion with restrictions, rules, and fear; uncertainty about the future; turmoil over the country’s deep ideological divide; and, perhaps most important, a sense that the pandemic’s end was in sight but now may be slipping away.
Pennsylvania has the ninth-highest vaccination rate in the country and New Jersey the sixth, but both still need a quarter of the eligible population to get shots — and both are averaging more than 1,000 new cases a day, compared with 150 or 200 at July’s start.
The states’ leaders have warned that it could get worse and begged the unvaccinated to reconsider. Philadelphia health officials on Tuesday restarted their weekly coronavirus briefings, two months after they ended. All of the Philadelphia region is seeing “substantial” spread of the virus, as classified by the CDC, and is urged by that agency to wear masks indoors.
It’s a grim turnabout from earlier this summer, when nearly all mitigation measures were lifted and public health messaging indicated that “we’re nearing the finish line,” said Abby Rudolph, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University. The feeling of sliding backward has only contributed to people’s natural impatience, she said.
“Mentally, people tend to try to say, ‘OK by such and such a date we’ll get through this,’” said Lynn Bufka, the American Psychological Association’s senior director for practice transformation and quality. “And throughout the pandemic, that date keeps moving. So you continually have to adjust your expectations, and that’s exhausting.”
Nationwide, new cases have multiplied exponentially. The United States was nearing a seven-day average of 100,000 new cases a day on Thursday. When July started, that average was about 12,000 new cases a day.
The delta surge has led to an increase in new vaccinations. Nearly 864,000 people were vaccinated in the United States on Wednesday, and Pennsylvania’s daily vaccination numbers have risen modestly but steadily in the last month.
But inoculating more people as quickly as possible remains urgent, key to protecting them from serious illness, hospitalization, or death and cutting down the virus’ ability to spread and mutate, scientists say.
Among vaccinated people, said Burlington County health director Herb Conaway, “you’re hearing this expression of dismay, a little bit of anger, angst.”
In part, that’s because “it’s more than just about the individual, it’s about the public health,” said epidemiologist Chrysan Cronin, a Muhlenberg College professor. “We don’t let people make personal decisions on whether or not they want to drink and drive. ... So why would we allow them to make a personal decision about being vaccinated or not being vaccinated when they can cause potential harm, illness, and death?”
Anger among vaccinated people, experts said, is aimed at those who choose to decline the shot, not the segments of the population that still have barriers to access, need assistance, experience systemic inequity, or can’t be vaccinated due to medical conditions.
“For people who lack trust and access, we don’t want to victim-blame those communities,” said University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Harald Schmidt. “Instead of focusing our attention on people who scream the loudest, we have to make sure that we focus our attention on the people that have been hit the hardest.”
Murphy similarly distinguished between the various groups of unvaccinated people, many of whom state and local health employees and volunteers are trying to reach in grassroots campaigns. His outburst came on the heels of his announcement that many New Jersey health-care and long-term care workers would be required to get vaccinated or undergo regular coronavirus testing. Late Thursday, word also broke that he was planning to mandate masks in all New Jersey schools this fall.
But with most serious cases and deaths now preventable with the vaccine, many public officials, like Murphy, are most upset by the fact that people are needlessly getting sick or dying.
“That’s the part that frustrates me,” Montgomery County Commissioners’ Chair Val Arkoosh, a physician, said last week. “People are dying because they believe false information about vaccines.”
That was one of the points Murphy — who uses his weekly briefings to read aloud obituaries of New Jerseyans who have died of the coronavirus — made to the demonstrators on Wednesday.
“At a certain point, they have to be taken to task,” he said Thursday. “They have to be called out, and we will continue to do that.”