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Republicans divided on how hard to push vaccines

America is grappling with a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, but Republican lawmakers remain divided over whether to push millions of reluctant GOP voters to get vaccinated against the deadly virus. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been making the case for months that the vaccine works and will help prevent hospitalizations and save lives.

But many rank-and-file Republicans continue to show apathy toward the national vaccine push, downplaying the severity of the coronavirus spike and arguing that the decision is a personal choice for individuals and families.  

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) has tested positive for COVID-19 twice during the past year. He believes the virus is something that Americans just need to live with.

“This is something we deal with in our lives on a daily basis; ever since I’ve been born, there’s sicknesses, there’s flu, there’s different diseases,” Loudermilk, 57, told The Hill on Tuesday. “I have probably a much higher chance, because of my age and where I live, just the demographics of the South and the way people eat, of having some kind of heart disease as much as I do from getting COVID.”

“But it’s a personal responsibility issue, and these people are willing to take that risk because they think that, ‘Look, there’s a greater chance if I get COVID of just getting through it.’ The majority of people don’t end up in the hospital,” he said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former House member often mentioned as a possible 2024 GOP presidential candidate, dismissed the uptick in cases in his home state, calling it a “seasonal virus” that will subside next month.

The mixed vaccine messaging by elected Republicans has helped fuel the spread of misinformation in conservative circles on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. A new Yahoo News-YouGov poll found that 37 percent of unvaccinated individuals believe that the vaccines pose a greater health risk than the virus itself.

And new daily vaccinations in the U.S. have now slowed to a trickle, even though there are plenty of doses available to the tens of millions of American adults and teens who have not gotten their shots. 

It’s unclear whether U.S. health officials can turn around that trend given the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases in recent days. The delta variant now makes up 83 percent of all new cases in the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky testified before the Senate on Tuesday. That’s a 50 percent increase since July 3.

The rise in delta cases has also led to a nearly 48 percent increase in COVID-19-related deaths, now at 239 per day, Walensky said. Nearly all of those fatalities were people who had not been vaccinated, something she has called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“Each death is tragic and even more heartbreaking when we know that the majority of these deaths could be prevented with a simple, safe, available vaccine,” Walensky told senators.

The rate at which the highly contagious delta variant is spreading spurred at least one skeptical leading Republican to action.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said he received his first Pfizer shot on Sunday, even though federal lawmakers have had access to the vaccine since December. The No. 2 GOP leader told his local newspaper that “it was a good time to do it” after seeing the aggressiveness of the delta variant and a spike in new cases; he said he had tested positive for antibodies months ago and believed he had some immunity from the coronavirus. 

“I’ve been vaccinated, many of my colleagues have been vaccinated, and the vaccine is safe, effective and it’s widely available all across the United States of America for anybody who wants to get it,” Scalise told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.

The Louisiana Republican credited former President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, which accelerated the development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, and knocked President Biden and Vice President Harris for questioning during the 2020 campaign whether the vaccines were being rushed.

“I have high confidence in the process that was used to bring these vaccines,” Scalise added. “In fact, it’s not only saving lives in America but saving lives worldwide through American ingenuity.”

Other senior Republicans — including some in deep-red Trump country — are taking a much more aggressive approach in urging their constituents to get a shot, even as they show signs of frustration at the situation. 

“I’m intensely worried about it. I see the increase in infections and hospitalizations in Oklahoma, as well as the statistics across the country. My neighbors have to get vaccinated,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  

“I think there’s an inherent suspicion out there about everything that involves government at any level, and this is the result of that. And whether you’re a very cautious Republican or anybody else for that matter, we all have to be vaccinated,” Lucas added. “Who would want to have a disease when there’s the ability to take a vaccination and dramatically increase the ability to avoid it?”

The nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases struck close to home for lawmakers this week. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) said he had tested positive, despite being fully vaccinated earlier this year.

And a senior aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a White House staffer tested positive for the coronavirus after coming in contact with a delegation of Texas Democratic state lawmakers who had fled their state in protest of GOP efforts to pass a stringent voting bill; six members of the delegation staying in the D.C. region have since tested positive. 

The development set off alarm bells in the Capitol on Tuesday. Masks had been absent in the Capitol for weeks, but Pelosi and her entourage of staffers and security personnel were spotted all sporting masks as they entered a closed-door caucus meeting. Dozens of Hill staffers and reporters were seen donning masks again as well, though a mask mandate was not reinstated. 

“The Delta variant virus has been detected in Washington, DC and in the Capitol buildings. It represents a dire health risk to unvaccinated individuals,” the Capitol’s attending physician, Brian P. Monahan, wrote to lawmakers on Tuesday. “It is now endangering many regions of the United States where vaccination rates are low.”

Officials are also worried the surge in delta cases could threaten the economic recovery as American families reconsider the safety of shopping and dining indoors and vacation travel at a moment American life appeared to be getting back on track.

“I just had a video conference with personnel from the Federal Reserve. … That was one of the subjects of our discussion: whether a new variant or spread of COVID might harm what we all hope is going to be an economic recovery,” said Rep. Mike Johnson (La.), a member of GOP leadership.

“There’s so many headwinds, so many challenges right now, we don’t need that. So I think we’re all watching it very closely.”

Tags Barry Loudermilk Donald Trump Frank Lucas Joe Biden Mike Johnson Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Rochelle Walensky Ron DeSantis Steve Scalise Vern Buchanan

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