In case you weren’t paying attention, all of the progress made in the struggle to defeat COVID-19 has been virtually wiped out in recent weeks, with the number of new cases reported nationwide rising to its highest level since January, before vaccines were widely available.

It has been widely reported that nearly 100 percent of hospitalizations at this phase of the pandemic are for the unvaccinated. And let’s be honest about the responsibility these people bear. In Bellville, Texas, Army veteran Daniel Wilkinson died in August of a treatable illness after being turned away from hospitals whose intensive care units were packed with unvaccinated COVID patients. In Cullman, Alabama, the same fate befell antiques dealer Ray DeMonia this week. At this point of the pandemic, this is worse than mere willful ignorance: it’s bordering on negligent homicide.

For any public official who actually cares about the constituents they serve, the answer is clear: encouraging vaccination as the clear, obvious path out of this mess. For those who have no moral compass, pandering to these people for a few cheap votes is also an option.

In our region, Assemblyman John Salka, R-Brookfield, has firmly planted both feet in the latter camp. Earlier this year, he delighted the worst of our region at an “Unmask Our Kids” rally, which attempted to rally the public to rise up in spite against mask-wearing mandates in schools. Salka continues to perpetuate the lie that children are essentially immune to COVID. The American Academy of Pediatrics noted that with schools reopening, the number of new cases among children rose to 243,373 this week, a 240% increase from July. COVID isn’t as severe in children, but their routine exposure to others and asymptomatic infections can make them deadly vectors.

Salka’s latest idiotic stunt was to hold a mass gathering in Utica last weekend of tantrum-throwing adults seeking to avoid vaccination through a “religious exemption” loophole. A video posted on the assemblyman’s Facebook page shows a dense, elbow-to-elbow crowd of these maskless fools indoors — exactly the sort of conditions that have led to the preventable deaths of more than 650,000 Americans. Salka claimed the vaccines “do not even keep someone from getting infected” — as if it hasn’t been widely established that the effects of COVID are far less severe on those who’ve been vaccinated. With his career in health care as a respiratory specialist, Salka surely knows better, even if he lacks the moral decency to admit it.

Note that no significant religious sect in the U.S. has a policy against vaccines. The Vatican in a statement last year reminded its followers that COVID vaccines are “morally acceptable.” Even the Christian Scientists, who encourage prayer over medical treatment, has no official stance on vaccines, noting only “Church members are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate,” and that its members should “obey quarantines, and strive to cooperate with measures considered necessary by public health officials.” A few hucksters, however, have popped up to cater to the demands of the plague-spreaders; 29-year-old pastor Jackson Lahmeyer of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a fringe far-right U.S. Senate candidate, has religious exemption forms available for download on his website — for those who donate to his church.

Another member of the “Unmask Our Kids” crowd, Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, has made little effort to encourage vaccination. But when a judge put the state’s health care worker vaccination mandate on hold Tuesday, he found time to gloat, saying in a prepared statement that we could “breathe a little easier knowing that, if this order sticks, we will not have to fear losing nearly a quarter of our healthcare workers overnight.”

An actual leader who tells the truth would have said that these workers that their fears are misguided. Tague makes no mention of those health care workers who have done the right thing and are leaving the field out of anger toward those who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Instead, he sides with the reckless few who are abandoning those in need out of spite and ignorance.

Public health aside, these Republicans seem to have learned no political lessons from COVID. They lost the White House and Senate last year by botching the pandemic response, and their California recall effort was crushed this week when Gov. Gavin Newsom easily portrayed his opponents as disease-spreading fascist insurrectionists. Those charged stuck simply because the GOP has made little effort to refute them, for fear of angering disgraced ex-president Donald Trump and his followers. This pandemic calls for honest, serious leadership, and these men aren’t providing it.

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