It’s incredibly discouraging to retreat when it seemed like our nation was well on its way to reducing COVID-19 to a footnote in history books instead of a recurring topic in your community newspaper.

A petition appeared soon after local schools reluctantly returned to a temporary mask mandate. These parents were disappointed they weren’t able to share their input, but these leaders did what they thought was needed to keep our kids safe.

For decades, parents have had to provide proof of vaccination before kids could start school. There wasn’t anything controversial about the government forcing you to provide documentation that your child’s runny nose wouldn’t bring a petri dish of horrible diseases to show-and-tell.

Perhaps I am misguided to trust scientists who’ve spent careers studying infectious diseases to know what they are talking about, but vaccines have done a pretty good job protecting us against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, varicella, diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus.

So how did public health become so polarizing?

Two differences now: 1) An entire generation of Americans have grown up not knowing the horror of these contagious diseases and 2) social media now amplifies voices working to confuse and frighten us.

Vaccines aren’t the only way we’ve defeated deadly bugs. Antibiotics empowered us to conquer scarlet fever while insecticides put mosquito-borne illnesses on the ropes.

Measles were officially declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, but since then, dozens of outbreaks and thousands of cases have been reported, including an outbreak at Disneyland that led to 300 cases. Research shows that unvaccinated individuals tend to cluster in the same communities and schools, resulting in a breakdown of protective herd immunity and leaving these individuals vulnerable to outbreaks of disease.

As for the other type of viral, Facebook announced this week that it removed a network of accounts from Russia enlisting influencers to push anti-vaccine comments and misleading articles.

It’s not hard to imagine America’s enemies drooling at the chance to wage “virtual” war against us knowing that our military would obliterate them on a conventional battlefield. Nikita Krushchev bragged in 1956 that Russia would destroy us “from within without firing a shot.”

The U.S. State Department has detailed efforts by these foreign adversaries to muddy the waters of information to confuse those trying to discern the truth, undermine faith in America’s institutions, foment dissent and conspiracy theories and amplify political and social discord.

As former Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger said in a social media post, our freedoms come with an obligation to consider impacts on our neighbors. Alabama’s governor made a similar comment.

Responsibility leads society to require restaurant owners to cook their food at certain temperatures and wash silverware between uses. By some folks’ logic, most of us will survive food poisoning, so it’s a small price to pay for an employee’s freedom to not have to wash their hands after using the bathroom.

Freedom unpaired from responsibility is anarchy.

What doesn’t kill you mutates and tries again. Please get the shot.

— Steven Stiefel is the Times-Journal’s publisher. His column appears in Saturday editions.

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