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Vaccine hesitancy morphs into hostility, as opposition to shots hardens

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/15/2021 Dan Diamond, Hannah Knowles, Tyler Pager
a person holding a sign: Anti-vaccine rally protesters in Houston last month. © Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images Anti-vaccine rally protesters in Houston last month.

On July Fourth, President Biden celebrated dramatic progress in the war on the coronavirus, with more than 150 million adults fully vaccinated and infections plunging 93 percent since Inauguration Day. “Together, we’re beating the virus,” Biden said at a party on the White House lawn.

But at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, attendees celebrated a different — essentially opposite — milestone: that Biden had missed his goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adults.

“Clearly they were hoping — the government was hoping — that they could sort of sucker 90 percent of the population into getting vaccinated,” activist Alex Berenson told the crowd Saturday, seeming to inflate Biden’s target. “And it isn’t happening.”

The crowd clapped and cheered at that failure.

What began as “vaccine hesitancy” has morphed into outright vaccine hostility, as conservatives increasingly attack the White House’s coronavirus message, mischaracterize its vaccination campaign and, more and more, vow to skip the shots altogether.

The notion that the vaccine drive is pointless or harmful — or perhaps even a government plot — is increasingly an article of faith among supporters of former president Donald Trump, on a par with assertions that the last election was stolen and the assault on the U.S. Capitol was overblown.

Appearing at CPAC, Republican lawmakers such as Reps. Madison Cawthorn (N.C.) and Lauren Boebert (Colo.) took aim at Biden’s push for “door-to-door” vaccine outreach, framing efforts to boost inoculations as a creeping menace from big government.

“We’re here to tell government: We don’t want your benefits, we don’t want your welfare, don’t come knocking on my door with your Fauci ouchie,” Boebert said, referring to Biden’s top medical adviser, Anthony S. Fauci, her voice rising as she paced the stage and shook her finger. “You leave us the hell alone!”

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In Tennessee, health officials on Friday were ordered to halt outreach to adolescents for all vaccines — not just the coronavirus shot — after pressure from Republican lawmakers, as the Tennessean first reported. That prohibition extends to vaccines for the flu, human papillomavirus and other infectious diseases.

Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s former top vaccine official, said in a statement Monday that she had just been fired for promoting immunizations. “I have been terminated for doing my job because some of our politicians have bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign rather than taking the time to speak with the medical experts,” Fiscus said.

A Tennessee Department of Health spokeswoman said the agency is continuing to provide outreach and communication on vaccines, and that it recognizes their importance for childhood health.

On television and online, conservative media outlets are amplifying fears about the vaccine.

Vaccine door-knocking instructions revealed,” read one headline Tuesday on One America News’s website, with an accompanying video that grappled with what to do if “Big Brother comes knocking.” Newsmax host Rob Schmitt suggested last week that vaccines go “against nature,” though the network later said it supports Biden’s efforts to distribute the vaccine.

And Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who at times has backed the vaccine, has also said, “Maybe it doesn’t work, and they’re simply not telling you that.”

The message is resonating, and the resistance is solidifying. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 29 percent of Americans said they were unlikely to get vaccinated, including 20 percent who said they definitely would not. That represented an increase from three months earlier, when 24 percent said they were unlikely to get a shot.

[Tracking vaccinations across the U.S.]

The trend is unsettling public health experts, particularly as the outbreak worsens again. Confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases have more than doubled in the past week, with deaths rising 28 percent. Medical experts say those deaths are almost entirely among unvaccinated Americans.

“We always ask, what will be the last straw? What will be the moment that we lose the ability to communicate and cooperate and get things done?” said Frank Luntz, a longtime GOP pollster who’s been working to encourage vaccinations. “Well, we’ve reached it. This is it.”

He added: “Now, decisions are being made not because of evidence or facts or statistics, but strictly on political lines. And now people are going to die.”

a person standing in front of a crowd: Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) speaks July 12 at the Conservative Political Action Conference. © Emil Lippe for The Washington Post Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) speaks July 12 at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

For months, public health experts have been hammering on one big message: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to stamp out the pandemic. But red and blue America have responded to these exhortations in different ways, leaving Trump country particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, those experts say.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found last week that nearly 47 percent of residents in counties won by Biden were fully vaccinated, compared to 35 percent of residents in Trump counties. And that has pitted some traditional Republican lawmakers against those in the populist, Trump-aligned wing.

“I don’t know how many times you all heard me say this, but I’m a huge fan of vaccinations,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters on Monday, citing his own experience surviving polio. McConnell said he was “perplexed” by the slowdown in coronavirus shots.

Asked about GOP lawmakers like Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) who are raising doubts about the vaccines, McConnell demurred. “I can only speak for myself,” he said.

School boards are increasingly emerging as a battleground for vaccine fights, a trend that is all but certain to intensify in the fall. On Wednesday, the office of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) sent a letter challenging two school districts on a requirement that unvaccinated students who have been exposed to covid-19 must quarantine for 10 days. Ducey’s office argued that this policy violates a state law saying schools can’t require the vaccines.

On Sunday, onstage at CPAC as the final speaker, Trump bragged of pushing federal health agencies to make the vaccines a reality. “Thanks to the relentless efforts of my administration” — “and me,” he added after a slight pause — “we got miraculous therapeutics straight to patients with historic speed, and we produced three vaccines to end the pandemic in record time.”

The staunchly pro-Trump audience cheered. But in interviews, some attendees — all of them huge Trump fans — still said nothing could convince them to get their shots.

Gregory Chittum, a 58-year-old from Port Aransas, Tex., said he admires Trump but distrusts the vaccine because of the other people involved. “He depended on Fauci!” Chittum said of Trump.

Chittum, who rattled off misinformation about the coronavirus — claiming that it has killed only 12,000 people in the United States rather than the 607,000-plus deaths measured by the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention — vowed that his opposition to the vaccines would not melt away with more time and testing.

“You’re going to have to bury me to get it,” he said.

One of the few ways to change the minds of people like Chittum, Luntz said, is for Trump himself to get involved and endorse the vaccine in a full-throated way. “He says he wants to get the credit for developing the vaccines, but his followers are saying — in his name — that the vaccines are killing people,” Luntz said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Trump may be wary of alienating the base that adores him, a former senior Trump official said.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to stay on good terms with Trump’s retinue. “Is he willing to use the immense credibility he has with that base to endorse the benefits of covid vaccination, or does he want to sit back and not have his base get mad at him?”

A White House official stressed that despite the anti-vaccine sentiment, millions of Americans continue to get vaccinated every week. Still, Biden aides concede that the remaining group of unvaccinated Americans will be the hardest to persuade.

On Thursday, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy attended the regular White House press briefing to discuss a new advisory on coronavirus vaccine misinformation. “The problem right now is that the voices of these credible public health professionals are getting drowned out,” Murthy said.

“I think the White House has come to the conclusion that something more has to be done,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Wednesday on CNN. “We have to take this on frontally and not simply shrug it off as if, ‘Well, people will eventually come around to the right perspective.’ We’re losing time here. The delta variant is spreading. People are dying. We can’t actually just wait for things to get more rational.”

It remains unclear what a Democratic administration can do to reach those who still have no interest in getting vaccinated, especially as immunizations become the latest flash point in America’s bitter war over identity and culture.

“Anything that comes from the Biden administration will be rejected out of hand, regardless of what the message is,” said Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and a member of Biden’s coronavirus transition task force. “That really requires conservatives to, in a sense, mobilize independently of the Biden administration. And who would it be to do that?”

a man holding a sign: Anti-vaccine rally protesters hold signs at a Houston protest. © Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images Anti-vaccine rally protesters hold signs at a Houston protest.

Some former Trump administration officials have been privately discussing whether they can find a way to help the national effort. Former health and human services secretary Alex Azar has floated the idea of a joint public service announcement with other former Democratic and Republican health secretaries, said two people with knowledge of the discussions.

The Biden administration has yet to reach out to Trump alumni, said three former officials, who also rebuked the White House for criticizing the Trump vaccine operation it inherited.

“They tried to distance themselves from the Trump vaccine and now they’re having trouble getting the Trump supporters. They shouldn’t be surprised,” said Paul Mango, who as deputy chief of staff at HHS helped manage Operation Warp Speed, the program that oversaw the vaccines’ development.

Mango, who did praise Biden and his aides for doing a “spectacular job” administering vaccines this year, said the current president is missing an obvious tactic: enlisting the former president. “I don’t know why Biden doesn’t invite Trump to the White House and hold hands and say, ‘This is an American effort, we got vaccinated, let’s all get vaccinated,’ ” Mango added.

The White House declined to comment.

The opposition of the fiercest vaccine critics is having a ripple effect even on those who are less impassioned, as some conservatives who initially championed the administration’s vaccine drive are now adopting more skeptical stances.

Podcast host Megyn Kelly, who this spring shared her story of hunting for a coronavirus vaccine in New York City and repeatedly urged her listeners to get vaccinated, has more recently rebuked the effort to vaccinate younger populations.

“I don’t want my kids to get this,” Kelly said on her June 28 show, criticizing efforts to require vaccines for school and citing ostensible risks, like fertility problems. “Can you imagine looking at your kid and trying to explain that they lost their ability to, God forbid, do something as profound as have children because you really wanted them to participate in gym class and sports?”

There is no evidence the vaccines affect fertility, the CDC has said.

Other conservatives acknowledge the vaccines may have some worth, but are torn. Debbie Billingsly, a 67-year-old Texan who attended CPAC for the first time, said she and her husband got the coronavirus vaccine on a doctor’s recommendation. Her husband is diabetic, she said, making him more vulnerable to covid-19.

“I had mixed emotions, to be honest,” Billingsly said. “I don’t think, though, that these companies would inject all these millions of people with something that they thought was not safe.”

But now, she said, she’s hearing that Pfizer is advocating booster shots.

“Why do we need a booster if it worked — you know what I’m saying?” Billingsly said. “So you kind of question what’s going on.”

She added, “I will not get the booster. I’m done.”

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