Editorial: The right's new tone on COVID vaccines

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, shown at a news conference in March, said she doesn't remember wearing blackface during a college skit in the 1960s but "will not deny what is the obvious."
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, shown at a news conference in March 2019, recently lashed out at her state's unvaccinated residents. (Associated Press)

Take a look at a map of the U.S. overlaid with COVID-19 vaccine rates and a clear pattern emerges: The states with the smallest percentage of their eligible population inoculated also skew politically toward the Republican Party.

And the lowest of them all? Alabama, where just 34% are fully vaccinated — and not coincidentally, where hospitals are now reporting COVID-19 patients in numbers not seen since vaccines became available. The situation drove Alabama's Republican governor, Kay Ivey, to a moment of public exasperation last week.

“Folks are supposed to have common sense,” she said. “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.” And to make sure her point was not missed, Ivey said: "Get a shot in your arm. I’ve done it. It’s safe. It's effective. The data proves it. It doesn’t cost anything. It saves lives.”

For the most part, Ivey's message is not revolutionary. What is unusual is the harsh words for the unvaccinated from a conservative leader.

Ivey is one of several prominent and influential conservatives who have recently changed their tone on vaccines as the Delta variant spirals out of control, particularly in states with low immunization rates. Among them are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and several of the on-air personalities at Fox News, which has been one of the central purveyors of vaccine mistrust (though Tucker Carlson continues to spew misinformation and commentator Sean Hannity quickly walked back his impassioned plea for viewers to take COVID seriously).

It’s great to have these noteworthy voices taking a firm stand on the right side of history, supporting science and protecting humanity. With luck, they can help chip away at the deep distrust among conservatives that they and their colleagues have allowed to fester and grow — and frankly, have sometimes fed. Researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation have found that the partisan gap between those who have been inoculated and those who have not has widened in recent months.

But we still stop short of praising these latecomers for taking the high ground after the floodwaters were already rising. Even if every holdout is persuaded to run out and get a shot today, it would take two to six weeks for them to reach full immunity, depending on which vaccine they received. That leaves people vulnerable to sickness and death now, when cases are rising fast among the unvaccinated.

Had Ivey, DeSantis and other prominent Republicans been as forceful vaccine supporters as President Biden and California's Gov. Gavin Newsom from the start of the immunization campaign, the country might not have to consider new mask mandates and other restrictions in the face of yet another surge in infections.

Even now some conservatives are trying to have it both ways. On Sunday, former Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor of Arkansas, explained in an op-ed that she “decided to take advantage of President Trump's Operation Warp Speed and get vaccinated” despite the fear-mongering about vaccines that she blames on Democrats.

To put it another way, Sanders is implying that the ranks of unvaccinated, who skew conservative, were convinced to reject Trump’s life-saving medical gift to them by a few random (and unwise) negative comments by Democrats months before the vaccines had received temporary approval. That's an assertion so ridiculous it doesn't deserve a rebuttal.

Sigh. If the cost for getting Republicans fully on board the "Trump vaccine" train is a few, easily debunked partisan swipes, we'll take it.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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