Health Care

Tackling COVID-Vaccine Skepticism inside the Tent

A healthcare worker draws a coronavirus vaccine from a vial at the Mission Commons assisted living community in Redlands, Calif., January 15, 2021. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Republicans are more reluctant than their partisan counterparts to take the shot. There are ways to address this.

This weekend brought news both good and bad from the vaccination front. Saturday saw 4.6 million doses of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines administered in the U.S., a number that smashed the previous record and demonstrated that we could see an end to the pandemic much sooner than the dour Biden administration has been predicting.

A year after the “15 days to slow the spread” guidelines were issued, that end can’t come soon enough.

Unfortunately, there remains a good portion of the public that is hesitant to be inoculated. Disproportionately, these skeptics are Republicans. Of those surveyed in a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 24 percent reported having already been vaccinated, 31 percent said they would accept it once it became available to them, and 41 percent said they would not take it at all. For Democrats, the numbers are 29 percent, 58 percent, and 11 percent respectively. Independents — surprise, surprise — register in between the two at 19 percent, 44 percent, and 34 percent respectively. While there’s still a limit to how many doses we can administer in a day and no shortage of Americans who are willing to be vaccinated, the consequences of this skepticism are currently limited. Eventually though, our quest to reach herd immunity will be stymied by it.

If we’re going to address this emerging challenge, we need to understand how we got here.

On the surface, it’s a bit odd that it’s Republicans who are the most skeptical of the coronavirus vaccines. After all, Donald Trump’s administration jump-started and championed the race to produce them through Operation Warp Speed. In the fullness of time, this effort will be remembered as one of Trump’s greatest achievements in office. At home and around the world, it is American vaccines, created at the direction of a Republican president, that will do the heavy lifting in defeating the virus unleashed by the Chinese Communist Party. It’s a script written by Clint Eastwood and starring James Woods and Scott Baio, and one that’s seemingly designed to elicit feelings of pride and patriotism from the GOP base. Moreover, anti-vaxxerism — while undoubtedly a bipartisan phenomenon — is mostly associated with a kind of crunchy, RFK Jr., Hollywood progressivism.

Republican reticence to embrace the vaccines is best understood not as anti-vaxxerism, but as a more natural, one-off response to the circumstances. Concerns about the coronavirus vaccines in particular do not necessarily or even probably correlate with opposition to inoculations more generally. They were produced in a record amount of time, and it’s unreasonable to expect Americans to study and understand all of the data available from the clinical-trial phase since it’s become available to the public. That’s where we should have expected our expert class to step in responsibly.

The problem with the experts is that they are the same people who have slowly destroyed their credibility with Republicans. At the start of the crisis, Americans of all political stripes were more than willing to make sacrifices in the name of the greater good. But when exceptions were made for protests and riots last summer, it became clear that many so-called experts were playing Calvinball with us. That includes the sainted Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has called Andrew Cuomo’s New York a “model” (and not in the way Cuomo might refer to a staffer) for responding to the virus. He initially urged Americans not to wear masks before reversing course, and has now embraced eradicationist rhetoric, telling Americans that we cannot return to normal until we’ve reached “a baseline that’s so low, it is virtually no threat.” Of course, Fauci knows that the virus cannot be eradicated — it’s a virus. The goal is to turn it into a threat somewhere on par with the flu, not to ensure that no one on the continent has it before returning to normal life.

So conservatives are understandably already disinclined to believe or trust Fauci. He’s compounded that problem by being a relentlessly pessimistic voice on what can only be described as a lecture circuit on our televisions. We know many Republicans are skeptical of the vaccines. We also know that almost all Republicans are anxious to return to the pre-pandemic status quo. It should be axiomatic to Fauci and the Biden administration that they should be meeting these people where they are and using the carrot of a return to normalcy to encourage vaccination. Moreover, television hits should be geared toward persuading people that the vaccines are safe. Instead, Fauci uses his platform to talk about “approaching a degree of normality” by December, and President Biden uses his to suggest that maybe we can have a Fourth of July where “small groups” can gather. With such a hopeless and unambitious vision for life post-inoculation, why should an already nervous group be eager to get vaccinated?

Some irresponsible voices on the right, too, have played a role in dissuading Republicans from getting vaccinated because they are convinced that’s what their audience wants to hear. Laura Ingraham hosted the aforementioned Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on her podcast last month to discuss the coronavirus vaccines. Kennedy is the chairman of the Children’s Health Fund, an anti-vaxxer evangelist group that spends its time and money trying to convince Americans that vaccines cause autism, ADHD, and even cancer.

Tucker Carlson has been more coy, playing the “I’m just asking questions” card. In one monologue, he asked: 

How effective are these drugs? Are they safe? What’s the miscarriage rate for pregnant women, for example? Is there a study on that? May we see it?

Of course, it would be easy for Carlson to spend his airtime actually answering these questions. There are readily-available answers to each, dealing with everything from effectiveness and safety to the CDC’s advice that pregnant women make their own choices about whether or not to be vaccinated.

What to do, then? The Biden administration should sideline Fauci and begin telling the truth, instead of playing the political expectations game they have to this point. Vaccinations mean herd immunity and herd immunity means a return to normalcy, nothing less. It’s unlikely that it will take this course of action, as COVID piety and absolutism, as well as an unquestioning belief in Dr. Fauci, are popular among the Democratic base. But if bringing a swift end to the pandemic and saving as many lives as possible were truly Biden’s highest priorities, he would pursue this course of action.

Conservatives with credibility among the grassroots, meanwhile — Florida governor Ron DeSantis comes to mind — should make a point of touting the vaccines’ benefits not only to their own constituencies, but on national television and in other media.

Both groups should be approaching the skeptical not with condescension or arguments from authority, but specific facts and figures.

There’s little reason for the coronavirus vaccines to have developed into a partisan wedge issue and every reason for their development and distribution to have been a unifying and joyous occasion. Sadly, while Operation Warp Speed demonstrated the best of what America can do and be, its aftermath has been an advertisement for our political elites’ self-interestedness and disregard for the common good.

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