Republican politicians are under increasing pressure to speak out to persuade COVID-19 vaccine skeptics to roll up their sleeves and take the shots as a new, more contagious variant sends caseloads soaring. But after months of ignoring — and, in some cases, stoking — misinformation about the virus, experts warn it may be too late to change the minds of many who are refusing.
In recent news conferences and statements, some prominent Republicans have been imploring their constituents to lay lingering doubts aside. In Washington, the so-called Doctors Caucus gathered at the Capitol for an event to combat vaccine hesitancy. And in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this week pointed to data showing the vast majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients hadn’t received shots.
“These vaccines are saving lives,” said DeSantis, who recently began selling campaign merchandise mocking masks and medical experts.
The outreach comes as COVID-19 cases have nearly tripled in the U.S. over the last two weeks, driven by the explosion of the new delta variant, especially in pockets of the country where vaccination rates are low. Public health officials believe the variant is at least twice as contagious as the original version, but the shots appear to offer robust protection against serious illness for most people.
Indeed, nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are now people who haven’t been vaccinated. Nonetheless, just 56.2% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, only 51% of Republicans said in mid-June that they had received at least one vaccine dose, versus 83% of Democrats, according to an AP-NORC poll. And many appeared to have made up their minds. Forty-six percent of those who had not been vaccinated said they definitely would not. Among Republicans, even more — 53% — said they definitely wouldn’t; just 12% said they were planning to.
“I think they’ve finally realized that if their people aren’t vaccinated, they’re going to get sick, and if their people aren’t vaccinated, they’re going to get blamed for COVID outbreaks in the future,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who has been working with the Biden administration and public health experts to craft effective messaging to bring the vaccine hesitant off the fence.
But Luntz, who conducted another focus group Wednesday evening with vaccine holdouts, said there has been a discernable shift in recent weeks as skepticism has calcified into hardened refusal.
“The hesitation has transformed into opposition. And once you are opposed, it is very hard to change that position. And that’s what’s happening right now,” he said.
For months now, many conservative lawmakers and pundits have been actively stoking vaccine hesitancy, refusing to take the shots themselves or downplaying the severity of the virus. Republican governors have signed bills protecting the unvaccinated from having to disclose their status and tried to roll back mask mandates. And on social media, disinformation has run rampant, leading President Joe Biden to claim platforms like Facebook were “killing people” — a claim he later walked …read more
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