How many hard-core anti-vaxxers are in Southwest Florida?

A Collier County, Florida resident receives the second shot of the Moderna COVID vaccine in February 2021. (Photo: Author)

July 23, 2021 by David Silverberg

The COVID-19 Delta variant has begun its grim swing through Southwest Florida as it has throughout the rest of the nation and the world, taking aim at the unvaccinated.

“The Delta variant is more aggressive and much more transmissible than previously circulating strains,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters at a briefing yesterday, July 22. “It is one of the most infectious respiratory viruses we know of, and that I have seen in my 20-year career.”

In Collier County, Florida, as of July 22, the COVID infection rate was running at 8.4 percent, according to the Naples Community Hospital (NCH), well above the 5 percent considered safe for reopening.

In Lee County, Florida the 14-day rolling average positivity rate is at 22 percent, approaching last July’s peak, according to NBC-2 News. Lee Health, the county’s largest health provider, has re-activated its COVID-19 Incident Management team due to the spread and influx of new cases.

(Unfortunately, since the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) stopped issuing daily COVID statistics, the Florida Department of Health is no longer the prime authoritative source of the latest information regarding the spread of the disease.)

Getting vaccinated is the best defense—and yet, despite all the convincing, cajoling, coercing or complaining, the media coverage and the pronouncements of doctors and health care experts from the top of the government pyramid to grassroots family practitioners, there is a hard-core, die-hard population who absolutely will not get shots.

Why they’re so adamant is less important than trying to determine how large a population they represent because as the summer wears on and the Delta variant spreads, they are likely to start filling the hospitals and the intensive care units (ICUs) and spread the disease to other unvaccinated people.

How many of these hard core anti-vaccinationists (anti-vaxxers) are in Southwest Florida? How many are likely to need urgent care? How can the health systems of Southwest Florida prepare for what is already an influx of cases?

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of scientific polling and surveying in Southwest Florida. Hospitals and health care systems can only measure the number of cases that come in already infected. So making a determination has to rely on more anecdotal indicators.

Fanning the flames

Perhaps the region’s leading and most vocal anti-vaxxer is Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III, a farmer and owner of the Seed to Table market in North Naples. From the beginning of the pandemic he characterized COVID as a “hoax” and a “sham.”

A sign on the front of Seed to Table. The pictures are of Collier County commissioners who voted for a mask mandate in July 2020. (Photo: Author)

Oakes is now well-known throughout Southwest Florida for his extreme political positions and his adamant resistance to masking and vaccinations. He has written Facebook posts that have created enormous controversy on a variety of issues and led to canceled contracts for Oakes Farms.

But whatever one thinks of Oakes’ anti-vaccine posts, his following and the responses to his posts do provide a potentially useful snapshot of the possible size of the anti-vaxx population, although this is, of necessity, a very rough estimate. Oakes’ Facebook page is followed by 14,520 people, according to Facebook, and lists 4,939 friends

A prime example of Oakes’ following came on July 9. Oakes cited a letter sent to employees of NCH by the hospital’s vaccination administrator encouraging employees to get vaccinated and listing places in NCH where vaccines were available.

“Look at this disgraceful letter that is being sent out by communist NCH to all of the employees that did not take Fauci’s experimental cocktail…” Oakes wrote on his Facebook page. The post received 192 comments, most supportive of Oakes.

A posting yesterday, July 22, displayed a banner: “Imagine if there was a 99.7% chance you wouldn’t get cancer, But you were forced to go on chemo just incase…” [sic]. That post received 184 comments.

(When reader James Snyder pointed out: “Taking medical advice from a produce salesman is probably not a good idea FYI!” Oakes responded: “Taking advice from someone who has 3200 employees with over 8000 patrons coming through daily and not a single employee dying… and very few getting sick for more than a few days.. Everyone eating healthy and living happy without fear and without masks loving one another enjoying their lives for the last year and a half may be someone you should consider taking advice from….Just sayin’.” It is also worth noting that musician Ted Nugent tested positive for COVID a week after playing a packed, unmasked performance at Seed to Table.) 

Another potential indicator of the anti-vaxx population’s size came during the Collier County Commission debate on July 13 over a failed “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance. The proponents claimed to speak for 5,000 residents, based on a petition in favor of the ordinance.

While the ordinance concerned the Bill of Rights, it was based on an earlier petition launched in April by The Alamo gun range and store to pass a “Second Amendment Preservation Act.” As of this writing, that petition attracted only 1,338 signatures.

While worry over guns and rights is hardly the same as fear of vaccinations, the concerns overlap somewhat among these residents, so it may be something of an indication of the size of the anti-vaxx population in Collier County.

While Lee and Charlotte counties also have anti-vaxx populations there are fewer indicators for the size of their anti-vaxx cohort.

Based on these extremely rough and unscientific indicators, the number of hard-core anti-vaxxers in Southwest Florida may range from the mid-hundreds to perhaps the low thousands.

We’ll all know soon enough as the ICUs fill up.

The history of anti-vaxxing

An English cartoon from 1802 lampoons fears of the smallpox vaccine.

In their rejection of scientific evidence, today’s anti-vaxxers join a long line of past opponents.

Opposition to vaccinations predates the practice of vaccination itself. Before there were vaccines, doctors in Africa, China, India and the Ottoman Empire practiced “variolation”—inoculating an uninfected person with pus from someone with smallpox to induce immunity.

However, in the West, particularly England, it was Dr. Edward Jenner’s use of cowpox in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to create immunity to smallpox that led to what is now called vaccination—and created the first controversy over its use.

“Pro-inoculators tended to write in the cool and factual tones encouraged by the Royal Society, with frequent appeals to reason, the modern progress of science and the courtesy subsisting among gentlemen. Anti-inoculators purposely wrote like demagogues, using heated tones and lurid scare stories to promote paranoia,” according to the 2019 book Let’s Talk Vaccines, by Dr. Gretchen LaSalle.

Ever since then, opposition to vaccination has waxed and waned, usually paralleling epidemics and pandemics. England imposed mandatory smallpox vaccinations in 1853 for infants up to three months old and then extended that in 1867 to children up to 14 years. These laws imposed penalties for failures to vaccinate.

The mandates faced fierce resistance and riotous protests. While an 1896 commission studying the vaccines found that they prevented smallpox, it recommended removing the penalties and an 1898 law provided for exemptions for religious or conscientious objectors.

In the United States, despite the presence of an Anti-Vaccination League founded by a visiting Briton in 1879, there was a widespread acceptance of vaccination. This was bolstered by the 1905 Supreme Court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which upheld a state’s right to mandate vaccines. Today it remains the precedent for state vaccine mandates.

Between 1920 and 1970 American scientific breakthroughs produced highly lauded vaccines against diphtheria, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella and their administration was widely accepted by the public.

Beginning in 1982, however, the public consensus began to fray, with the national airing of a television documentary, “DPT: Vaccine Roulette” that emotionally alleged ill-effects from a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine. Although the documentary detailed what were known to be side-effects from the vaccine and long-term study reported no permanent ill-effects, it began an anti-vaxx movement that gained momentum over the years as celebrities, lacking any medical education or training, joined the anti-vaxx chorus.

In 2014 anti-vaxx sentiment led to resurgence of measles, prompting the state of California to remove parents’ options to opt out of measles vaccinations. The measles problem has persisted to the present.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, though, has overshadowed all other vaccine fears. The first COVID vaccines were announced by Pfizer and BioNTech in November 2020 and have since received Food and Drug Administration approval.

As of this writing 339 million Americans have received vaccine doses and 162 million, or 49.3 percent of the country has been fully vaccinated.

Southwest Florida resistance

In Southwest Florida resistance to all vaccines was already causing concern prior to the pandemic.

In March 2019 the national measles resurgence prompted local NBC2 News to ask: “Is the anti-vax movement impacting Florida’s vaccination rates?

It found that vaccine hesitancy was prompting an increase in the number of religious exemptions being requested by parents of schoolchildren at the state level. In the 2017-2018 school year the state of Florida was aiming to have 95 percent of all kindergartners vaccinated against measles. Religious exemptions jumped to 2.4 percent, 10 percent more than 10 years previously.

In Collier County the religious exemptions went from 2.6 percent in 2015-2016 to 3 percent in 2017-2018.

So clearly there was a growing, although still small resistance to vaccinations prior to the COVID pandemic. But then, when the pandemic began hitting the United States in a big way in 2020, the political controversy over the response mounted exponentially, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s dismissal of the COVID danger.

Trump’s denigration of all responsible media reporting as “fake news” and his attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also served to reduce acceptance of COVID information among segments of the population. This led to reliance on anti-vaxx rumor and conspiracy theories, spread in many cases on social media.

In Southwest Florida this manifested itself in resistance to mask mandates, fed in particular by individuals like Alfie Oakes and Byron Donalds, then a Republican congressional candidate, who opposed masking in person every time a mask mandate was debated. He caught COVID in October 2020 but recovered and was elected to Congress in November.

Liberty and death

While Southwest Florida is widely acknowledged as politically, socially and culturally conservative, the extreme brand of Trumpist conservatism now includes rejection of science and vaccinations. Given the properties of the COVID-19 Delta variant, a refusal to vaccinate appears to be a virtual death sentence but there are people who hold out—and will continue to do so come what may. They disbelieve all journalistic reporting on the pandemic, they reject all public health efforts and many feel that any precautions of any kind infringe on their personal freedom and liberty.

They bring to mind Virginia patriot Patrick Henry who in 1775 said: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

He was thinking of a line of patriots facing a line of redcoats. Those Americans had a better chance of surviving a musket volley than anti-vaxxers do facing the Delta variant today.

They may think anti-vaxxing brings liberty—but they’re much more likely to get death.


To read more about the history of vaccine resistance:

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

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