By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Last March 23, Gov. Eric Holcomb used the first anniversary of his COVID-19 shutdown to give a statewide address, his “light at the end of the tunnel” speech, a glimpse at a post-pandemic life returning to normal. “It’s up to each and every one of us to do our part to stay on our course,” he said.

Little did the governor, or most of us, realize that the end of that proverbial tunnel would be blocked by a clown car, with commentators and anti-vaxxers tumbling out, erecting an arcade-style house of mirrors. At this writing, only 43.1% of Hoosiers are fully vaccinated, according to CDC statistics, and only 45.8% have received one dose – far, far below President Biden’s July 4 goal of achieving a 70% vaccination rate on the way to herd immunity.

Instead of reveling in that social achievement coming on the heels of one of this nation’s greatest scientific breakthroughs (getting a safe, effective vaccine to the general public within a year), the U.S. is now rigidly divided along political fault lines.

The top 22 states (including D.C.) with the highest adult vaccination rates all were carried by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump won 17 of the 18 states with the lowest adult vaccination rates.

While there are a number of doughnut counties that Trump carried that have exceeded a 50% vaccine rate, the bottom 11 Indiana counties voted heavily for Trump/Pence in 2020, with their vax rate (and Trump totals in parentheses): LaGrange has the lowest rate at 18% (76% voted for Trump); followed by Franklin (80%), Newton (75%) and Switzerland at 24% (75%); Daviess at 25% (80%); Carroll (74%) and Adams (75%) at 27%; Starke (72%) and Crawford (70%) at 29%; Fayette (76%) and Jay (75%) counties at 30%.

Even more troubling, according to Centers for Medicaid/Medicare, only 48.56% of long term care staff in Indiana nursing homes are vaccinated, 10th worst in the nation.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the main factors driving differences in COVID-19 vaccination rates across the country is partisanship. “Our surveys consistently find that Democrats are much more likely to report having been vaccinated than Republicans, and Republicans are much more likely to say that they definitely do not want to get vaccinated,” the foundation reported last week. “Three months ago, as of April 22, the average vaccination rate in counties that voted for Trump was 20.6% compared to 22.8% in Biden counties, yielding a relatively small gap of 2.2 percentage points.  By May 11, the gap had increased to 6.5% and by July 6, 11.7%, with the average vaccination rate in Trump counties at 35% compared to 46.7% in Biden counties.”

At a video press conference last Friday, Indiana Health Commissioner Kris Box said, “We will see a surge in the Delta variant.” But she said, “We are not planning any further restrictions at the state level, but individuals and school districts could.” Dr. Box added, “If you mandate masks, 50% of the people are angry; if you don’t mandate masks, 50% of the people are angry.”

Asked about Indiana lagging the U.S. vaccination rate, Dr. Box said, “Obviously we are disappointed. Right now one of the barriers is it’s still an emergency use approval.” Box said these are among “the most studied vaccines in the history of the world,” including potential side effects. She said that the FDA’s full approval would be helpful.

The state’s chief health officer, Dr. Lindsay Weaver, made this ominous prediction of future COVID outbreaks: “We’re going to see pockets in unvaccinated areas. We will see more cases and death as the Delta variant spreads.”

The threshold realization of the proverbial clown car blocking the end of the COVID tunnel came at a CPAC conference in Dallas last weekend. One panel featured Alex Berenson, the former New York Times reporter (Yale-educated novelist, avid tweeter reaching more than 200,000 followers). “Clearly, they were hoping – the government was hoping – that they could sort of sucker 90% of the population into getting vaccinated,” Berenson said. “And it isn’t happening,” he said as some in the crowd applauded.

With the U.S. crossing 20,000 COVID cases for the third straight day (and Indiana crossing the 400 threshold during the same period, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that he was distressed to hear the crowd at a conservative gathering this weekend cheering anti-vaccination comments. “It’s horrifying. I mean, they are cheering about someone saying that it’s a good thing for people not to try and save their lives,” Fauci told host Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“I mean, if you just unpack that for a second, Jake, it’s almost frightening to say, ‘Hey, guess what, we don’t want you to do something to save your life,’” Fauci said. “Yay. Everybody starts screaming and clapping. I just don’t get that. I don’t think that anybody who is thinking clearly can get that.”

In the past 24 hours, the CDC acknowledged that 100 people (out of 13 million) taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have experienced a neurological effect. There has also bee a COVID outbreak at a church retreat in Ohio that an unknown number of Hoosiers attended. And the IndyStar analyzed the vaccine disparities and impacts between neighboring Ohio and Switzerland counties.

Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes, writing for The Bulwark, put it in this perspective: “I admit that I’m struggling to come up with an analogy that would shed some light on the sheer insanity of this moment. Try to imagine, for example, a campaign to mock attempts to improve airline safety in the wake of a crash that killed hundreds. Or ignoring an engineer flagging structural deficiencies in a seaside Florida condo.” Or a Londoner in 1940 refusing to close the nighttime shades during The Blitz.

“None of that, however, even comes close to the genuine depravity of the current burst of performative anti-vax demagoguery we are seeing right now,” Sykes continued. “The irony is that many of those who now deride the vaccines also objected to lockdowns, social distancing, and the wearing of masks. In a rational world, they would see the vaccines as a ticket back to normal life. Instead, at this moment, they have chosen to go full anti-vax. Even with hundreds of thousands of dead, and hospitals again filling up.”

Hoosier Republican officeholders who dominate the state have been largely mum as the state’s vaccine rate lags. U.S. Reps. Dr. Larry Buchson and Jackie Walorski publicly promoted the vaccine last winter, but haven’t made any recent conspicuous public statements or joined local health officials in advocating the vaccine.

Gov. Holcomb, who is in the midst of a court fight over Indiana General Assembly laws he vetoed that supersede gubernatorial and local health officials’ ability to press pandemic response mandates, has backed off vaccine push. “It seems to me that the closer we can get to different individuals around our respective states, the more effective it is,” Holcomb said in May. “It’s a slog, and it’s going to be a grind. I can’t change reality. If there are some people who are just dead set against it, it’s their personal responsibility.”

While Holcomb refused to halt Indiana University’s vaccine mandate (the school has since made it optional), Holcomb said he’s against public institutions requiring the vaccine. “I do support private businesses making that call,” Holcomb said. “But not public institutions.”

Except ... if the Delta variant of COVID mutates into an infection that makes the vaccine obsolete. That is already happening to the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine that the governor took last spring in the company of Senate President Rod Bray, U.S. Rep. Andre Carson and State Rep. Robin Shackleford.

And in some of the lowest vaccinated states, COVID is roaring back and infecting younger Americans. According to WMC-TV in Memphis, nearly 100% of the Delta cases infecting mid-southerners are among unvaccinated people. In Arkansas, where they are reporting a surge in hospitalizations and possible third wave of COVID cases, doctors said patients are trending sicker and younger. “We’ve had to reestablish our surge plan and reopen surge beds,” said Dr. Cam Patterson, University of Arkansas Medical Sciences chancellor.

A surge in hospitalizations is starting to hit the Mid-South, something other nearby states, like Missouri, are already dealing with. Patterson said it’s happening because of a convergence of two things, low vaccination numbers and the spread of the highly contagious Delta strain of COVID-19.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Missouri state health department tests wastewater to track the spread of COVID-19, including which variant is dominant. Data from June 14, the most recent available, showed the Delta variant was present statewide. At the beginning of May, the variant wasn’t present in the wastewater sampled, the data showed. “The uptick is powered by the Delta variant,” said Clay Dunagan, chief medical officer at BJC HealthCare, a system serving St. Louis, southern Illinois and mid-Missouri. The variant, which is about 40% to 60% more contagious than the previous dominant variant, is sending more people to hospitals in the northern and southwestern parts of the state, health officials say.

During his virtual State of the State address last January, Holcomb said, “The pandemic has pulled forward many trends that were already well underway, and this plays to Indiana’s strengths. Our decisions, our discipline now enable us to do things that many other states won’t be able to do for years to come. We’re lucky to have been chosen to lead at this moment, and I will say it once again. For Indiana, the future is now, and the world continues to hear Indiana’s engines roar.”

But at this juncture, the state appears to be frozen in making the leap from 43% full vaccinated to that now elusive 70% herd immunity threshold. While Republican officeholders appear weary of pressing the Trump base to go see their primary physicians (who have a vaccination rate of 96%), and the Biden administration hasn’t fully credited the Trump administration with helping to get the vaccine to the general population, the political risks are how independent voters will react if ICUs fill up again, or school districts go back to a virtual format due to Delta variant outbreaks.

President Trump lost his reelection bid because he lost control of the pandemic, which has cost at least 650,000 American lives. Instead of embracing face masks as a political marketing tool (in addition to being a proven lifesaver), the administration was indifferent. Instead of publicly taking the vaccine (as Vice President Mike Pence and Suregeon General Jerome Adams did), Trump received his in private, reportedly angered that Pfizer, Moderna and J&J didn’t begin the emergency approval process before last November’s election, as he repeatedly promised they would.

Baked in to American politics is a red/blue state divide over the vaccine, with unknown potential consequences. Just like Trump’s indifference to masking and the vaccine, if 2022 brings a resurgent pandemic with outbreaks in regional unvaccinated pockets, or a general outbreak that swamps emergency rooms, the health and political consequences are hard to fathom at this writing. But just as social and supply chain dynamics have produced a seemingly unlimited number of surprises during this pandemic, the unfolding clown car dynamic at what was supposed to be the end of the tunnel is poised to produce even more.

Holcomb ended his speech last March, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to do these few things, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes brighter and brighter. Buying tickets for March Madness games, planning for all our local fairs and festivals, or the greatest spectacle in racing itself tells me that all those life delights I once took for granted are coming back online. It’s up to each and every one of us to do our part to stay on our course.”