The question of why some Americans are so reluctant to get the shot — a process that is hampering hopes of driving the virus into full retreat — is stirring increasing frustration for the governor of one of the most conservative states in the union: Republican Jim Justice of West Virginia.
“If all of us were vaccinated, do you not believe that less people would die? If you’re not vaccinated, you’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”
The President didn’t hector or condemn vaccine skeptics, but instead played on their heart strings, appealing to their desire to protect family, friends and country, warning that those who skipped the shot remained at great risk.
“So, please get vaccinated now. It works. It’s free. And it’s never been easier, and it’s never been more important. Do it now for yourself and the people you care about; for your neighborhood, for your country,” Biden said, as he rolled out a retooled US strategy to reach those yet to be vaccinated — that will include a greater emphasis on primary care doctors and pediatricians.
“It sounds corny but it’s a patriotic thing to do,” said the President.
The vaccine map looks like the political map
Biden has some political capital to spend after managing the successful roll out of Covid-19 vaccines and as he transitions the country from actively combating the pandemic with steps such as widespread mask wearing, business closures and social distancing, to learning to live with the virus at lower levels.
But as usual in a polarized nation, the poll showed a massive gulf in perception of his performance between Republicans — only 8% of whom approve of the overall job he is doing — and Democrats. And most worryingly for the cause of ending the pandemic, the survey revealed a chasm in attitudes towards vaccines that helps to explain why Biden fell just short of a goal to have at least 70% of Americans get one dose of vaccine by the Independence Day holiday.
The polls showed that 86% of Democrats have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 inoculation — compared to just 45% of Republicans. And 38% of Republicans say they will definitely not get any doses of vaccine.
There are plentiful reasons why someone may chose not to get vaccinated. People in rural areas — which often vote Republican — who have not seen large Covid-19 outbreaks and who live far apart from others may not see the need. Younger people have been told they are at lesser risk — though that may be changing with the Delta variant. That bloc of the population is increasingly in the sights of the White House. Other Americans may be waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to upgrade its emergency approval of Covid vaccines with full authorization.
A haunting reality
More than 99% of deaths from Covid-19 in June were in unvaccinated people, the nation’s top infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci asserted on Sunday. That means that all but a tiny proportion of those victims should still be alive — and every shot that gets administered from here on is potentially lifesaving. Furthermore, and as Covid-19 rates rise again after months of progress, new data shows that states with low vaccine rates have almost triple the rate of new Covid-19 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Other data from the university matched with 2020 election results shows that 15 of the 16 states with the lowest percentage of residents fully vaccinated were won by Trump. And Biden won 19 of the 20 electoral battles ranked by the highest percentage of the population that is fully vaccinated. He shared the 20th — Maine — with Trump, winning three electoral votes to his opponent’s one.
So while the argument that Democrats are more likely to get vaccinated than Republicans ignores some nuance, and there are medical, demographic and economic considerations in play, the evidence strongly suggests that political leanings are an important determinant of vaccine attitudes.
The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden made the point in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” when he stressed that vaccines were developed during the Trump administration, in an apparent moment of outreach to conservatives.
There are increasing real time indications of a political undertone to the fight against Covid-19.
Vastly pro-Trump West Virginia for instance got a fast start on the vaccine race. But it has since slowed, despite offering incentives like lotteries for people to get their shots and now has only 35% of its population fully vaccinated, according to the Johns Hopkins figures.
Justice explained that that means in human terms.
“We have a lottery that basically says, if you’re vaccinated, we’re going to give you stuff. You have another lottery going on. It’s the death lottery,” Justice said on ABC “This Week” on Sunday.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday that political and cultural reasons were hampering the vaccine effort in the Natural State.
“In a rural state in a conservative state, there is hesitancy, and you are trying to overcome that,” Hutchinson admitted.
Right from the beginning of the pandemic, the coronavirus has possessed an almost uncanny capacity to widen American political divides, a process exacerbated by politicians like Trump who played up suspicion of government and science among his voters for his own political advantage.
The basic act of wearing masks, social distancing and restrictions introduced by federal, state and local governments clashed with trademark American skepticism of authority and the nation’s genetic creed of individual freedom. In a pandemic however, the unwillingness of one slice of the population to get vaccinated ultimately impacts everyone else — since it widens the viral pool that could lead to vaccines evading variants and also could put a ceiling on economic activity if new social distancing is required. For Biden, this is also a political question, given the importance of relaunching the country to the midterm election hopes of Democrats.
Trump undermined science
Whoever had been in the Oval Office, the national preference for individualism over altruism would have been a unique complication of the US response to the pandemic — in comparison to some European and Asian nations where people have a more communitarian worldview.
And in many ways, America’s independent streak and distrust of centralized power is a distinguishing strength of a frontier nation born in revolution that has built what is so far the most powerful economy ever seen.
But Trump, who wields vast influence among grassroots conservatives, repeatedly undermined public health messages — in an apparent effort to galvanize his core supporters ahead of the 2020 election.
Even when he announced new federal guidelines recommending that Americans wear masks in public places in April 2020, the then-President said he wouldn’t follow them. “I just don’t want to wear one myself,” Trump said, and spent the following months openly flouting public health guidelines while holding superspreader events during his failed reelection campaign.
Trump’s pressure for conservative states to reopen last summer recognized the appalling toll of shutdowns that cratered the economy overnight. But it also likely caused many deaths that might have been prevented as Covid-19 spiked.
The chances that conservative Americans still reluctant to get vaccinated will belatedly listen to public health officials is being further undermined by the assault on Fauci by Trump, his acolytes and right-wing media.
The veteran official, who has served Republican and Democratic administrations for decades is being accused, without evidence of covering up for China amid a debate over whether Covid-19 was naturally occurring or escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan.
The campaign appears designed to rewrite the history of Trump’s poor handling of the crisis, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans on his watch as he contemplates a political comeback.
But when the country leaves behind a summer that restored many pre-pandemic freedoms, it would be a stark — if predictable — tragedy if the winter toll of rising deaths could be predicted just by checking the electoral map.