McConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been one of the more consistent GOP voices on COVID-19 precautions and the importance of getting vaccinated.

Amid a growing partisan divide over COVID-19 vaccination, McConnell has been vocal about the need for everyone in the country to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, regardless of political party. 

He has consistently worn masks throughout the pandemic and notably declined to go to the White House in the final months of the Trump administration because he disagreed with their lack of COVID-19 protocols.

But experts and political strategists say McConnell’s message has been muddied by a reluctance to confront his Republican colleagues who are actively stoking fears and mistrust over the vaccine and discouraging people from getting it.

“He could have provided a leadership role, he could have pulled his caucus into the back room and said, ‘You guys need to get on board here.’ He did not do that,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“He had the opportunity to lead his party. And had he done so, I think that we would have a much different outcome than we’re seeing today in communities that have heard these negative messages.”

McConnell has spoken frequently in his home state of Kentucky and in Washington, telling people the only way to stop further hospitalizations and deaths is to take the widely available vaccine. 

McConnell has said that as a polio survivor, he is in a particularly unique position to advocate for the effectiveness of vaccines. 

“This is something I think I’m a good example of, something I know the answer to,” McConnell said.

Without addressing any other Republican by name, McConnell this week said he doesn’t understand why some people refuse the vaccine. He was so grateful to get the polio vaccine, he said, “it never occurred to me” there would be so much resistance to a lifesaving shot. 

“If there is anybody out there willing to listen: Get vaccinated,” McConnell said at his weekly press conference Tuesday.

“These shots need to get in everybody’s arms as rapidly as possible or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don’t yearn for — that we went through last year,” he said, urging Americans “to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.” 

Other Republicans have been far less consistent in sending a pro-vaccine message.

In the House, some GOP lawmakers have blasted the administration’s effort to push vaccines, which Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has compared to Nazi Germany.

Earlier this month, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeted that an “army” led by Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, would be knocking on doors to “push the experimental COVID vaccine.” 

Others have emphasized that getting a vaccine is a personal choice.

“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,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) told The Hill this week. “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.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), the second highest ranking Republican in the House, got his first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine days ago amid concerns about the delta strain.

Appearing with the GOP Doctors Caucus, Scalise on Thursday said he “would encourage people to get the vaccine,” saying the caucus has “expressed confidence in the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.”

Some raised eyebrows at the fact that Scalise was just getting the vaccine in July when it was readily accessible months ago. He said he had antibodies from his previous COVID-19 infection and felt that he might not need it, but decided to do so given the risk of the delta strain.

Health officials and experts recommend that even people who have been previously infected still get vaccinated, because the antibodies from that infection are not as strong or as long-lasting as the ones from a vaccine.

Nationally, coronavirus infections are rising while vaccination rates lag. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, the seven-day average of cases increased more than 50 percent from last week, to about 37,700. 

Hospitalizations are up more than 30 percent from last week, and deaths — a lagging indicator — are up 19 percent, Walensky said. The delta variant accounts for 83 percent of all infections in the country, and experts think it is likely an undercount. 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the stark political divide among the vaccine hesitant has grown more prominent in recent months. The vaccination gap between counties that voted for former President Trump in the 2020 election and those that voted for Biden has nearly doubled in less than two months.  

Conservative areas of the country have been particularly hard-hit by the delta strain; White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients on Thursday said Texas, Missouri and Florida alone accounted for more than 40 percent of all new cases this week.

But some political strategists said there are limits to the influence an individual politician has.

Last week, when asked about other Republicans raising doubts about the vaccine, McConnell said, “I can only speak for myself.”

Republican strategist and Capitol Hill veteran Doug Heye said he’s glad more Republicans are joining McConnell in preaching the safety and efficacy of the vaccines but that it should not have taken this long.  

“One of the frustrating things to watch is, when you have the Republican leader being so consistently responsible on this, that we’ve had to go through more than a year now [of] him being a lone voice in the wilderness sometimes,” Heye said. 

But Heye said he was skeptical that McConnell calling out his fellow Republicans would move the needle much on convincing the vaccine holdouts.

“He can be his brother’s keeper, but that doesn’t mean that he can necessarily affect how a senator in his own state or a Ron Johnson reacts to things, much less than what the conservative ecosphere outside of him says or does,” Heye said, referring to the GOP senator from Wisconsin.

Scott Jennings, a former McConnell campaign adviser, said politicians have a responsibility to tell the truth about the vaccine but that there are limits to what even someone like McConnell can do.

“I think people do listen to and respect Mitch McConnell, and again I think some of these Republicans are coming around in recent days, which is a good thing,” Jennings said. “But I think the same thing about [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer. I don’t think he can control the speech of every Democrat, and I don’t think Mitch McConnell can control the speech of every Republican.”

Tags Anthony Fauci Barry Loudermilk Chuck Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Jeff Zients Joe Biden Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Mitch McConnell Republicans Rochelle Walensky Ron Johnson Steve Scalise Vaccine Vaccine hesitancy

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