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Politics plays into the COVID vaccine debate, but not as much as you might think

WWL-TV New Orleans logo WWL-TV New Orleans 7/27/2021 Thanh Truong / Eyewitness News
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As the calls for more people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are growing more urgent, politics is proving to be a powerful factor in the ongoing campaign. 

Many surveys and statistics show vaccination rates in various parts of the U.S. are lower among Republicans than Democrats, but there are different local trends in Louisiana. 

When Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, one of the most loyal defenders of former President Donald Trump, got his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, it became national news. Perhaps hoping it would convince more conservative Republicans to get their shots, the Louisiana Department of Public Health posted a picture of that moment to Instagram.

This past weekend, Congressman Clay Higgins, another Louisiana Republican, revealed on Facebook he and his family have COVID. He didn’t specify if he’s been vaccinated, but in the past Congressman Higgins has been outspoken in his skepticism about the government’s response to COVID-19, its origin and the role of vaccines. 

More recently, with the penetration of the virus’ Delta variant, a slow-growing list of conservative voices have been encouraging people to get their vaccinations.

“It’s their people in their jurisdictions who are suffering the most. The larger the unvaccinated percentage, the greater the chance of that virus spreading,” said Ed Chervenak, political scientist at the University of New Orleans.

Chervenak says politicians at the national levels have a bit more latitude to stick to partisan politics. On the more local levels, Chervenak says playing to the political base isn’t always practical. 

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Regardless of party, the mayor of New Orleans and her counterparts in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes have similar and direct roles in keeping people safe. The consequences can be equally direct.

“Public health is a state and local responsibility and if things go wrong, they could lose their position, they could lose in the next election,” Chervenak said.

Will Sutton is a columnist for The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate. His commentary on Tuesday addressed the blaming or shaming conservatives about vaccine hesitancy. In Sutton’s view, that’s unfair and inaccurate.

“It’s a more diverse lot. There are people of various cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities and particularly Black people who are being defiant, or simply just undecided,” Sutton said.

New Orleans blues legend Little Freddie King waited until last week to get his first shot. He told The Times Picayune | New Orleans Advocate he was reluctant to get his vaccine because a previous flu shot got him sick. 

Sutton says the political debates and divides that have stirred up so much vitriol take focus away from the important work of getting vaccines to the people who actually need it.

“We got to flip this narrative to be more inclusive about the people we need to reach,” Sutton said.

In the South, and especially in Louisiana, there’s a lot of those people that need to be reached.

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