Republicans seek to win over vaccine skeptics in their ranks

WASHINGTON – When a group of Republican doctors in Congress released a video promoting the safety of the coronavirus vaccine, their message was not explicitly aimed at their conservative constituents, but had a clear political bent nonetheless.

Getting the photo is the best way to “end government restrictions on our freedoms,” Rep. Larry Bucshon, an Indiana Republican and heart surgeon who donned a white coat and a stethoscope when he spoke to the camera.

The public service announcement was the latest effort by GOP leaders to close the vaccination gap between their party and Democrats. With vaccination rates lagging behind in the Red States, Republican leaders have stepped up efforts to persuade their supporters to get vaccinated, sometimes battling the misinformation spread by some of their own.

“Medicine, science, and disease, it shouldn’t be politics,” said Dr. Brad Wenstrup, Republican Congressman from Ohio and podiatrist who has personally administered coronavirus vaccines both as a army reserve officer and as an ordinary doctor. “But it was an election year and it really was.”

Wenstrup said both sides have helped spark some skepticism, though increasingly vocal movements from other Republicans come back to acknowledge that reluctance to get the GOP vaccine is a growing public health problem – and potentially Politics.

“Things could easily escalate quickly if we don’t fix this Red State-Blue State problem,” said Kavita Patel, a physician and health policy expert who worked in the Obama administration.

Patel said life could return to normal in parts of the country as the pandemic continues to rage elsewhere – potentially even disrupting in-person voting in primaries ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

“We could be sitting here in the winter-fall with a totally different and frightening version of the pandemic,” she said. “A word motivated by a combination of variations and people who did not want to be vaccinated.”

Now it’s easy to spot potential hot spots – and the political pattern.

Mississippi has the lowest vaccination rate in the country, with less than 31% of its population receiving at least one coronavirus vaccine. And the four states that do so in national rankings, Alabama, Louisiana, Idaho and Wyoming, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They all reliably vote Republican in presidential races.

In contrast, the five states with the highest vaccination rates backed Democrat Joe Biden in November. New Hampshire leads the country with 60% of its population receiving at least one dose, followed by Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut. The fifth-highest vaccination-rate state, Maine, awarded three of its electoral votes to Biden and one to former President Donald Trump.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they definitely or probably won’t be vaccinated, 44% versus 17%, according to a poll released in February by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs.

Hence this week’s video, where Republican Representative from Texas Michael Burgess, an obstetrician who reassured viewers that rather than rushing the vaccine dangerously, federal officials “cut bureaucratic red tape, not corners.” And they got the job done in record time. The video also credited the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed ​​for bringing the vaccine so quickly.

Amid a poll showing Republican men were among the most likely to resist vaccines, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this month: “I can say as a man Republican, as soon as it was my turn, I took the vaccine. ” Even Trump, who was privately vaccinated during his tenure, suggested on Fox News Channel that he would be willing to record a video calling for the vaccination.

It would be an about-face for Trump, who as president has long said he would be ready to take a vaccine, but also liked to politicize the pandemic. He suggested the lockdowns recommended by experts in his administration were government overreach, mocked then-candidate Biden for wearing a mask too often in public, and used racist terms such as “virus Chinese”.

Not all Republican lawmakers have the same sense of urgency to increase the vaccination rate, in the meantime.

“Science tells us that vaccines are 95% effective. So if you have a vaccine, honestly, what do you care if your neighbor has one or not? Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, said in a recent interview with a conservative radio host. “I mean, what’s that for you?”

Between 70 and 85% of the population should be immunized before the coronavirus is effectively contained, experts say.

Top GOP leaders may also have political incentives to appeal to those who resist being shot. Joe Brettell, a GOP strategist in Dark Red Texas, said he expects Republican governors looking to raise their profile to take hold of vaccine-related debates, such as opposition to “vaccine passports” that could possibly be needed to travel, even if they implore that of their state. people to get vaccinated.

“I think that’s where smart governors are going to start to assert themselves,” he said, noting that some have already done so.

Ideology is not the only factor in reluctance to immunize either. Experts are also watching for a generational gap, with young Americans believing that even if they do contract the virus, it is unlikely to make them seriously ill or kill them. West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice is even offering $ 100 savings bonds to residents aged 16-35 who get or have gotten the hang of it – trying to reverse a trend that has seen his state become conservative. one of the first leaders in vaccination rates to slow since.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has researched the best way to win over vaccine skeptics, says he thinks effort is most effective when avoiding politics, with people hearing about the benefits of vaccination by doctors, not politicians. He said many skeptics are persuaded to get the vaccine because it benefits their friends and family, not just themselves.

“If it’s politicized, they won’t achieve herd immunity,” said Luntz, who said it means giving credit to both sides, praising the Trump administration for Operation Warp Speed ​​and the effective and efficient distribution of vaccines by the Biden White House.

Luntz argued that public health officials should target Republicans in the same way that national campaigns sought to win over resistance fighters among black Americans and other minority groups.

“It’s actually very tragic that appealing to black Americans about the importance of staying safe is heroic,” Luntz said. “But appealing to Republicans, who have their own concerns, is considered political.”

The Biden administration is working with community health officials, promoting the vaccine to skeptics through doctors and experts who lack the celebrity buzz but who can be considered more trustworthy . Biden suggested it might be a better way to reach out to Trump’s diehard “Make America Great Again” supporters more than a video of the former president himself.

“What has more impact than anything Trump would tell the folks at MAGA is what the local doctor, what the local preachers say, what the people in the community say,” Biden said.

Wenstrup said vaccine reluctance may be bipartisan – but the opposite is also true. He said he helped vaccinate seniors in Ohio when a woman recognized his name and asked for a selfie.

“She said, ‘I probably don’t agree with you on one point politically, but thank you for your service and for being here today to kick things off,” “Wenstrup recalls. “I said, ‘And this is America, lady.'”

Story of Will Weissert.

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