GOP vaccine resistance poses growing challenge in pandemic fight

Growing GOP resistance to COVID-19 vaccines is raising alarms among public health experts and creating a major challenge as the U.S. tries to move past a pandemic that has lasted almost a year and a half.

Attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference cheered talk of a lower-than-expected vaccination rate over the weekend. Tennessee is ending outreach to adolescents on vaccines, including for COVID-19, amid pressure from state GOP lawmakers. And a range of conservative media hosts and lawmakers have expressed concerns over the vaccine and the Biden administration’s outreach efforts.

The resistance helps explain why more than 30 percent of U.S. adults remain unvaccinated, with even higher percentages in Republican-leaning states, leaving places with lower vaccination rates at risk of localized surges of the virus.

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“It’s really profoundly sad to note that essentially almost 100 percent of every person who’s admitted to the hospital today with COVID could have been prevented,” said William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

More than 99 percent of the people now dying from the virus are unvaccinated, experts say, and the vaccines have been found to be remarkably safe and effective after tens of millions of people have received them.

Some Republicans, however, are casting doubt on that consensus.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel MORE (R-Wis.) held a controversial event last month warning of the side effects of vaccination. He told HuffPost on Tuesday that he is “not an anti-vaxxer” but is instead “trying to provide accurate information.”

Other GOP lawmakers have pushed back on President BidenJoe BidenTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden on hecklers: 'This is not a Trump rally. Let 'em holler' MORE’s call for a “door to door” vaccination effort, misrepresenting the outreach while doing so. Rep. Lauren BoebertLauren BoebertMcConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message GOP's Banks burnishes brand with Pelosi veto Performance or performance art? A question for voters in 2022 (and 2024) MORE (R-Colo.) tweeted that an “army” led by Anthony FauciAnthony FauciDemocrats question GOP shift on vaccines GOP Rep. Cawthorn says he wants to 'prosecute' Fauci The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel MORE, Biden’s chief medical adviser, would be knocking on doors to “push the experimental COVID vaccine.”

The White House has clarified repeatedly that the individuals participating in the door-knocking campaign, which has been ongoing since April, are local doctors, faith leaders and other members of local communities and that they are not representatives of the federal government.

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The vaccine resistance from some on the right has prompted other Republicans to push back.

“I think it’s an enormous error for anyone to suggest that we shouldn't be taking vaccines,” Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal Schumer leaves door open for second vote on bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-Utah) told reporters on Wednesday. “The politicization of vaccination is an outrage and frankly moronic.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines Has Trump beaten the system? MORE (R-Ky.) has also spoken out repeatedly, including in his home state of Kentucky, in favor of vaccinations.

“I'm perplexed by the difficulty we have in finishing the job,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “If you're a football fan, we're in the red zone, but we're not in the end zone yet, and we need to keep preaching that getting the vaccine is important.”

When asked about Johnson and other Republicans raising doubts about the vaccine, McConnell said, “I can only speak for myself.”

And after a Newsmax host suggested during a segment last week that vaccines go “against nature,” a Newsmax spokesperson distanced the network from the comments by issuing a statement saying it “strongly” supports the Biden administration’s efforts to distribute coronavirus vaccines.

The divide is starkly apparent on the map. The top 21 states for adult vaccination rates all went for Biden in November, while the bottom nine states went for former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE, according to data compiled by The New York Times. In states like Missouri and Arkansas that are now seeing surges, only about 55 percent of adults have at least one shot.

Trump has said that people should get the vaccine, but he has not made it a priority by taking steps such as appearing in public service announcements. The vaccines were developed during the Trump administration, which has received credit for its Operation Warp Speed program.

Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Health Lab, said anti-vaccine messages are “having a harmful effect” but acknowledged that the magnitude of that effect on overall vaccination rates is still unclear.

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden walks fine line with Fox News White House on Cleveland Indians' name change: 'We certainly support their change of name' US delegation departs Haiti after reports of gunshots at ex-president's funeral MORE said Wednesday that the administration will continue to work with local partners in states to push back against vaccine misinformation and communicate that the vast majority of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are not vaccinated. On Wednesday, the administration was focused on reaching a younger audience as Biden and Fauci cut videos encouraging vaccines with pop star Olivia Rodrigo.

“There is misinformation out there. Sometimes that’s traveling on platforms, sometimes that’s traveling, unfortunately, out of the mouths of elected officials,” Psaki said. “The most important thing we can do is not see this as a partisan issue because certainly the virus is killing people, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.”

Psaki forcefully pushed back against GOP South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s criticism of the door-to-door vaccine program last week, saying the failure to provide accurate health information is “literally killing people.”

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She declined to comment directly on Tennessee’s decision to end outreach to adolescents but emphasized that the more contagious delta variant remains a threat to Americans of all ages.

Surgeon General Vivek MurthyVivek MurthyBiden walks fine line with Fox News If you care about the First Amendment, this class action is for you COVID-19 misinformation is a public health hazard — we need to start treating it as such MORE is expected to appear in the White House briefing room on Thursday to talk about health misinformation, further elevating the issue at the White House.

Some experts say they think persuasion and incentives are reaching their limits and that employers should start mandating the vaccine for their employees, something that could become easier once the Food and Drug Administration grants full approval.

Still, Pollack said the responsibility largely falls at the feet of prominent conservatives to adopt a sound message on vaccines and push back against misinformation and irresponsible rhetoric.

“They are trusted messengers on this issue, which is politically polarized, in a way that the Biden administration is not,” Pollack said. “It is a failure within the conservative movement to provide a culturally competent public health message that is at the core of this problem.”