If you doubt COVID shots, ‘go to the morgues’ and see who’s dying, federal health leader tells Iowans

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visits the Polk County Health Department and addresses the media on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021 in Des Moines, IA. Brian Powers/The Register

By Tony Leys, Des Moines Register

Americans who doubt they need a COVID shot should see how many unvaccinated people are struggling with the disease in hospitals’ intensive care units, the country’s top health care administrator said in Des Moines Thursday.

“Or worse, go to the morgues, and see who the people are who are dying from COVID,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a visit to the Polk County Health Department.


Becerra said unvaccinated people make up 99% of Americans dying from COVID-19 in the latest wave of illness, which is fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus. Vaccinated people should continue to take precautions because they still can be infected, he said, but they’re much less likely to become critically ill.

Becerra, a former California attorney general and congressman, now runs a huge federal department that includes the Medicare and Medicaid programs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On his Des Moines visit Thursday, he toured a drive-through vaccination clinic in the Polk County Health Department’s parking lot. The shot clinic had an added enticement of a taco truck, which was serving free lunches to people who were being vaccinated.


Although demand for vaccinations plummeted from its peak in April, it has rebounded a bit in recent weeks in Iowa. By Thursday, 60% of eligible Iowans had been fully vaccinated, which was equal to the national average, according to the CDC. Polk County officials said the figure is nearing 70% in the county. 

Becerra said he appreciated public health workers’ persistence.


“Thank you for believing the facts,” he told health department employees gathered in a conference room. “Thank you for trying to persuade everyone that it’s in their interest and in ours that we stay safe, that we use the masks, that we keep a distance, and most importantly, that we take the shot and get vaccinated.”

Talking to reporters afterward, he was asked if the Biden administration wants more employers to require vaccinations, especially now that the Pfizer version of the vaccine has been fully approved for people 16 and over by the Food and Drug Administration.


“I would want to see everyone get vaccinated,” he replied. “I would want to see every employer have a safe workplace for their employees and their patrons. And I believe they should do everything the law permits them to do.”

Federal officials have previously said employers have the right to require the COVID shots. Some employers, including all Des Moines area hospitals, have begun to do so.

Becerra did not directly respond to a question about whether he expects schools to someday require students to receive coronavirus shots, the way schools require many other vaccinations.

The coronavirus shots have emergency authorization for children as young as 12. Health experts expect the shots to be authorized for younger children within a few months.

Becerra vowed that the federal government would continue to support state and local health officials in any way possible. “We will be a partner,” he said. “We’re not just going to knock on the door, deliver the vaccines, and head out.”

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