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Editorial: Enough with the hysterics. SC needs political support on vaccination effort.

Virus Outbreak-South Carolina (copy)

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Dr. Edward Simmer (right) and Gov. Henry McMaster have taken opposite approaches to South Carolina's low COVID-19 vaccination rate, with Dr. Simmer constantly urging people to get vaccinated while Mr. McMaster merely says the vaccine is available and even raises the specter of the government forcing people to take it. They're shown here at a March 2 news conference at the Statehouse. File/Jeffrey Collins/AP

Fewer than two-thirds of Americans were eager to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but while there are some anti-vaxxers, on the right and left, most of the rest of our neighbors simply have questions or don’t consider it a priority.

That’s why public health officials have worked so hard to enlist trusted voices — politicians, celebrities, doctors, teachers, ministers — to help convince people to roll up their sleeves. It’s why so many of those ambassadors, including S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, shared pictures of themselves getting vaccinated: to show anyone who respects them that they considered it safe and important.

And it’s been clear for months that getting enough people vaccinated to prevent a resurgence — particularly in states such as South Carolina, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country — is going to be a long, slow slog, often involving individual conversations in doctor’s offices or  over coffee or at public events.

So it came as no surprise when, after we failed to reach his goal of having 70% of the country vaccinated by Independence Day, President Joe Biden said that as the federal government winds down its mass vaccination sites it's focusing more on community outreach: “Now we need to go to community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and oft times door to door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus.”

As The Associated Press reports, the federal COVID relief bill passed in March funded grassroots vaccination efforts that have been in operation since April and have included, for example, one-on-one campaigns in Hispanic and black neighborhoods, where vaccination rates have lagged.

Of course, none of that stopped a few fringe politicians from trying to conjure up absurd images of federal goons forcing their way into our homes and holding us down while they push the vaccine into our arms. Or from spinning wild conspiracy theories about some sort of federal “mechanisms” to build a door-to-door campaign that could then be used to “go door to door and take your guns” and “go door to door to take your Bibles.”

It was particularly disappointing to see our own governor join in the hair-on-fire chorus on Friday. In a letter to the DHEC board, Mr. McMaster warned against “Enticing, coercing, intimidating, mandating, or pressuring anyone to take the vaccine" and said the "prospect of government vaccination teams showing up unannounced or unrequested at the door of ‘targeted’ homeowners or on their property will further deteriorate the public’s trust and could lead to potentially disastrous public safety consequences.”

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He urged the board to “promptly issue direction to agency leadership and to state and local healthcare organizations prohibiting the use of the Biden Administration’s ‘targeted’ ‘door to door’ tactics in the State’s ongoing vaccination efforts.”

We’re not sure DHEC has the authority to prohibit “state and local healthcare organizations” such as hospitals or community health clinics  from going door to door and encouraging people to get vaccinated — which is all the president was advocating. Even if it had that authority, it would be irresponsible to use it.

What the president suggested is no more "intrusive" or "coercive" than Mr. McMaster and other politicians sending campaign volunteers out to knock on targeted doors to talk up their election campaigns. Annoying, perhaps, if you’re not interested, but not "intimidating," or "pressuring."

The governor’s implications are not grounded in any reasonable reading of the president’s words and bear no connection to what has been happening across the country since April. Some Democrats want the president to issue a federal vaccine mandate, but we're pretty sure you wouldn't have to guess if he tried that, and we're not sure he has the authority to do it anyway.

Now, there have been examples of government, and businesses, and community organizations “enticing” people to get vaccinated — from Krispy Kreme’s free donuts to special lotteries. Mr. McMaster might not want government money spent on enticements — and that’s a legitimate opinion to hold — but there’s nothing inherently inappropriate about any of it.

And contrary to the impression you might get from Mr. McMaster’s own refusal to even implicitly do so since that initial picture, there’s nothing wrong with government officials urging vaccinations. Just the opposite. It's the responsible thing to do — like urging people to evacuate before a hurricane or to stop smoking, exercise more and eat and drink less. So we were encouraged to see DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer respond almost immediately to the governor’s letter by saying the agency isn’t conducting door-to-door campaigns — and then pivot to urging all South Carolinians to get vaccinated. As he does frequently.

We were disappointed too that the White House lashed out at Mr. McMaster’s misleading letter with such ferocity that DHEC felt the need to defend the job it’s been doing. South Carolina certainly has an embarrassingly low vaccination rate. But in a state where the Legislature prohibits public schools from requiring unvaccinated students to wear masks and public officials are afraid of riling up extremists by even suggesting that people should get vaccinated, the agency has been doing an admirable job. Imagine how much more it could do with more support from our elected officials.

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