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Concerns that vaccine hesitancy might prevent the United States from ending the coronavirus pandemic have been prominent among public health experts since well before any COVID vaccines had been approved. While much of the attention in the early weeks of the rollout was on addressing skepticism among people of color, polls suggest that the biggest divide in vaccine acceptance is not along racial or economic lines but political lines.
A number have found that Republicans have the highest rate of vaccine hesitancy of any group. Half of unvaccinated Trump voters in a poll conducted in early March said they would “never” get the vaccine. In the same poll, 74 percent of Democrats said they either had already been vaccinated or planned to be in the future.
Though it has been far from perfect, the in the U.S. has gone better than many experts expected. As of Monday, more than had been administered nationwide and 17 percent of American adults had been fully vaccinated. At the moment, a limited number of doses is still the main thing slowing down the vaccination effort. But public health officials fear that vaccine refusal — especially among Republican voters — may soon prove to be the greatest barrier to reaching the 70-85 percent immunity needed to reach herd immunity.
Why there’s debate
Most discussions about what can help persuade Republican voters to get the COVID shot start with what definitely won’t work. There’s broad agreement that shaming people for vaccine hesitancy is destined to backfire. Those on both the left and right of the political spectrum also agree that pro-vaccine messages from President Biden or members of his administration, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, will be rejected by members of the GOP base.
For these reasons, many have called for former President Donald Trump to take a larger role in promoting the vaccine to his supporters. He has to get the vaccine on two occasions in the past few weeks, but critics say his statements aren’t enough to undo the skepticism he has helped create through his attacks on the Biden administration and his choice to receive the vaccine in secret. Others say a number of GOP lawmakers and right-wing media figures are perpetuating vaccine hesitancy for political gain.
Some researchers say that pro-vaccine messages must be entirely apolitical and instead delivered by scientists, community leaders and public figures who are well-regarded in Republican areas of the country. Others say messaging should focus on an optimistic view of how vaccines can deliver an end of coronavirus-related restrictions that many Republican voters have railed against for the past year, rather than the dire warnings of how bad things might get that Biden, Fauci and many in the media have tended to use.
Trump could make an enormous different if he made vaccine promotion a priority
Shaming is the worst possible strategy
“As a clinician, I find it’s a mistake to simply tell people what to think. Screaming ‘Just take this!’ isn’t effective, because this isn’t about getting others to see my goals. It’s about helping them identify their own goals and how, maybe, getting a vaccine might help achieve them.” — Infectious disease specialist Aaron Richterman to
Doctors must lead the pro-vaccine messaging campaign
“Clinical physicians, rather than pharmaceutical companies, political leaders, or even medical scientists, should be at the fore of education and outreach strategies. Featuring clinicians in messaging is particularly important given that many people will not see their own physician when making vaccination decisions” — Gillian K. SteelFisher, Robert J. Blendon, and Hannah Caporello,
An optimistic message will be most persuasive to GOP voters
“We know many Republicans are skeptical of the vaccines. We also know that almost all Republicans are anxious to return to the pre-pandemic status quo. It should be axiomatic to Fauci and the Biden administration that they should be meeting these people where they are and using the carrot of a return to normalcy to encourage vaccination.” — Isaac Schorr,
Every possible strategy needs to be deployed to convince GOP voters
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. With information and encouragement, Black Americans are moving past their reluctance to be vaccinated. The same needs to happen for doubtful Republicans.” — Editorial,
Conservative media must stop pushing anti-vaccine rhetoric
“Many tell pollsters they’re worried that the vaccine might not be safe. Such fears have been fed by Fox News, whose star polemicist Tucker Carlson has frequently accused authorities of ‘lying’ about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.” — Doyle McManus,
There’s only so much that can be done to overcome entrenched partisan views
“Whatever good news there is out there on the coronavirus — and there’s plenty just now — the fever that Joe Biden kept predicting would break after the election is still off the charts. … I didn’t expect a fever break. I don’t know why anyone would.” — Mike Littwin,
Republican lawmakers have a responsibility to promote vaccines to their base
“How is it Biden's problem alone to persuade partisan opponents to do the right thing that happens to coincide exactly with their own professed desires? Where is Republican leadership if this is identifiably a Republican problem?” — Terry H. Schwadron,
Messages used to combat hesitancy among other groups won’t work with Republicans
“Messages targeted at minority groups were overt and discussion of hesitancy among people of color was clear. But when it comes to targeting a partisan population, appearing overtly political opens up new risks and could backfire, those working on the efforts warn.” — Allan Smith and Alex Seitz-Wald,
GOP vaccine skepticism may not be as pronounced as polls suggest
“It’s hard to talk about it in a way because right now it’s really a supply problem, but at some point in the foreseeable future it will become a demand problem. And at that point we’ll be able to have a much clearer picture of: Is it the people who are saying in these surveys they’re vaccine hesitant? Is it a subset of them? Or is it a different group?” — Political scientist Jamie Druckman to
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images