Tax the Unvaxxed

People who refuse the Covid vaccine are imposing costs on society. Time to make them pay.

More than 700,000 people are flooding the South Dakota badlands this week for what will surely be the COVID-19 superspreader event of the year, the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

We can hope the majority of attendees are vaccinated. But last year’s rally took place in blatant defiance of recommended health and safety protocols, resulting in hundreds (and likely thousands) of infections nationwide. “Screw Covid. I went to Sturgis,” read T-shirts sold at the event. With the delta variant already raging, the consequences of this year’s event could be horrific.

The antics of the willfully unvaxxed are a growing source of frustration for both vaccinated Americans and policymakers, including even some Republicans. “[I]t’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said recently. “It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.” While the number of COVID-19 infections has surged past 120,000 a day, the overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and virtually all of the deaths have been among the unvaccinated.

Policymakers—and employers—have radically shifted their treatment of vaccine holdouts in recent days.  Carrots, like million-dollar prizes and college scholarships, are giving way to sticks and cudgels, with vaccine mandates for government workers and proof of vaccination soon to be required for activities like indoor dining. Life for the unvaccinated will be increasingly inconvenient.

It should also become increasingly expensive.

In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Elizabeth Rosenthal and Glenn Kramon proposed higher insurance premiums for the willfully unvaccinated, in the same way that smokers also pay higher rates. COVID-19 patients are expensive, with average costs ranging from $51,000 to $78,000, depending on age.

It’s a good idea, and we need to do more along the same lines. Does an unvaccinated high schooler want to play on the football team or participate in another high-contact sport like wrestling?  Schools should double the activity fees for those students to cover the cost of expenses such as disinfection or medical expenses for teammates infected in an outbreak.

Does a traveler want to fly unvaccinated? Airlines should add a “public safety fee” along with the fees for checked baggage and extra legroom, with proceeds compensating flight attendants, airport staff, and other professionals for sick days and lost wages.

Restaurants should reinstitute the COVID-19 surcharge many were adding to bills at the height of the pandemic (but waive it for vaccinated customers), setting aside the funds for servers and other frontline workers. Movie theaters and concert halls should institute similar fees (again, waiving them for those who show proof of vaccination). Perhaps local governments should even impose meal and hospitality sales taxes (with exemptions for the vaccinated) to defray the costs of testing, tracking and contact tracing (in essence taxing the willfully unvaccinated).

None of these proposed penalties would fall disproportionately on low-income Americans, who have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Rather, they’d be targeted at travel, leisure and other optional activities that likely facilitate the virus’s spread. People can still choose to remain unvaccinated. But if they do, they should bear the cost that choice will have for the others around them.

There’s precedent for these kinds of penalties. Some cruise ships are charging unvaccinated passengers an extra $150 to cover the cost of COVID-19 tests. Some employers are contemplating docking the pay of unvaccinated workers by $20 to $50 per paycheck to cover the cost of higher premiums for employer-sponsored coverage.

The NFL has decreed even more draconian measures, announcing that outbreaks among unvaccinated players will lead to forfeits, docked paychecks, and financial responsibility for losses from cancelled games. (Congress, perhaps, should adopt a similar approach, and make maskless, unvaxxed members personally liable—no campaign funds allowed—for the COVID-19 tests that those around them must take, the out-of-pocket medical and hospital expenses close contacts incur in the event of an outbreak, and lost wages for those who must take sick leave.)

Vaccine resisters like to cast their position as one of “personal choice,” but “pandemics by their definition are collective problems,” as University of Alabama epidemiologist Rachael Lee told the Washington Post.  Each unvaccinated person’s personal choice has societal impact when that person becomes infected and/or infects others. Outbreaks lead to school closures, quarantines, lost days on the job, and unnecessary loss of life. Preventable hospitalizations from COVID-19 mean less room in the ER for people suffering from heart attacks and strokes.

Granted, many of those remaining unvaccinated are low-income Americans facing challenges of access and scheduling. Black Americans are justifiably distrustful of a government that, historically, has mistreated them. But there’s also a sizeable subset of Americans for whom opposition to vaccination (and masking) is political and ideological, born of misguided fealty to former President Donald Trump or mystifying adherence to conspiracy theories. Vaccination rates are significantly lower in counties that voted for Trump in 2020, and about 30 percent of Republicans say “they will not get vaccinated” (compared to 5 percent of Democrats).

So far, we haven’t asked these stubbornly unvaccinated to bear their share of the broader financial impact their “personal” decisions have on the families and communities around them. Instead, we’ve bent over backwards to respect their perspective, coddled their hesitancy, and granted them a free ride on the backs of Americans who’ve tried to do everything right.

That has to change. Willful vaccine resisters should pay their fair share of the price—literally—for what their behavior has cost and is costing the rest of us.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.