It’s time to start shunning the ‘vaccine hesitant.’ They’re blocking COVID herd immunity.

Has-been rock star Ted Nugent told the world last week that he has COVID-19. Nugent’s announcement was an oddity because he previously called the viral pandemic a “leftist scam to destroy” former president Donald Trump. As I watched Nugent’s Facebook Live post, in which he repeatedly hocked up wads of phlegm and spit them to the ground, I got emotional when he described being so sick he thought he “was dying.” But when he trashed the COVID-19 vaccine and warned people against taking it, I realized that the emotion I was feeling was not empathy, it was anger.

For the better part of a year, as the coronavirus racked up hundreds of thousands of American deaths, the flickering light at the end of the tunnel was herd immunity — the antibody force-shield that comes when enough people have survived the illness or have been vaccinated against it. “Go get vaccinated, America,” President Biden said in his speech to Congress this week, referring to the shot as “a dose of hope.”

Friends don’t let friends spread COVID

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, suggested in December that if 75% to 85% of the population got vaccinated, we could reach herd immunity by June. And with herd immunity, we’d return to a measure of “normalcy,” meaning indoor dining, movie theaters and hugs.

But herd immunity is slipping away because a quarter of Americans are refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group recently said: “There is no eradication at this point, it’s off the table. …We as a society have rejected” herd immunity. Hmm, no! “We” have not rejected anything. A quarter of the country is ruining it for all of us.

It’s not just wacky former rockers who have put herd immunity out of reach. It is white evangelicals (45% say they won’t get vaccinated). And it is Republicans (almost 50% are refusing the vaccine). In Texas, 59% of white Republicans have said “no” to the vaccine. You can slap the euphemism “vaccine hesitancy” on the problem, but in the end the G.O.P., and the children of G.O.D., are perpetuating a virus that is sickening and killing people in droves.

A big part of the problem stems from the cultish relationship many evangelicals and Republicans have with former President Donald Trump. They absorbed his endless efforts to downplay the danger of the virus and turn public health precautions into a political freedom movement. But the time for analyzing why these human petri dishes have chosen to ignore the medical science that could save them, and us, is over. We need a different strategy. I propose shunning.

COVID-19 vaccination site on April 27, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Biden’s wildly successful vaccine rollout means that soon everyone who wants a vaccine will have one. When that happens, restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, barbers, airlines and Ubers should require proof of vaccination before providing their services.

And it shouldn’t stop there. Businesses should make vaccination a requirement for employment. A COVID outbreak can shut down a business and be financially devastating. And failure to enforce basic health and safety measures is not fair to employees who have to work in offices, factories, and stores where close contact is required. Things should get personal, too: People should require friends to be vaccinated to attend the barbeques and birthday parties they host. Friends don’t let friends spread COVID.

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As I’m writing this I can almost see the Twitter rebuttals: “If people want to risk being microchipped by the deep state, they can protect themselves by getting a vaccine without making me do the same.” Nope. In its real life application, the vaccine is about 90% effective. Sure, that’s impressive, but if the roulette wheels makes you one of the unlucky 10%, it’s little consolation.

There have already been several thousand documented “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19 infections in people who have been vaccinated. Some have died. And with coronavirus variants popping up across the globe, for which the vaccine is less effective, we should expect to see more infections in vaccinated people.

Half-witted personal autonomy

Unwilling to miss an opportunity to flout common sense, Republican leaders from Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arkansas and other states want to prevent businesses from requiring customers to be vaccinated. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has already issued an executive order “prohibiting businesses from requiring patrons or customers to show vaccine documentation.”

There are decades of state laws that require vaccination before children can attend schools. There are seatbelt and helmet laws, no-texting-while-driving laws, and countless other laws that restrict individual freedoms to ensure safety for the public at large. Despite this, vaccine requirements designed to curb a global pandemic that has cost us more than 570,000 American lives is the hill on which Republicans want to die.

Are we about to hit a vaccine wall? If you have doubts about getting the COVID shot, reconsider.

When states pass these laws, designed to tell private companies how to run their businesses, there should be immediate legal challenges. Surely, if a bakery can refuse to provide its services to a gay couple getting married, they can refuse to bake a cake for people who choose to place themselves, the bakery staff and its customers at risk of contracting a deadly illness.

As a country, America has become too tolerant of half-witted individual autonomy that ignores the existential needs of the vast majority of its citizens. While writing this column I caught a TV promo for a new documentary in which Cher saves an elephant. It made me think of her performance in “Moonstruck.” Vaccine hesitancy? We need Cher to slap us in the face and tell us to “snap out of it.”

Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1

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