As virus resurges, GOP lawmakers allow vaccine skepticism to flourish

By Jonathan Weisman and Sheryl Gay Stolberg

As the coronavirus surges in their states and districts, fanned by a more contagious variant exploiting paltry vaccination rates, many congressional Republicans have declined to push back against vaccine skeptics in their party who are sowing mistrust about the shots’ safety and effectiveness.

Amid a widening partisan divide over coronavirus vaccination, most Republicans have either stoked or ignored the flood of misinformation reaching their constituents and instead focused their message about the vaccine on disparaging President Joe Biden, characterizing his drive to inoculate Americans as politically motivated and heavy-handed.

On Tuesday, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican who said he had received his first Pfizer vaccine shot only on Sunday, blamed the hesitance on Biden and his criticism of Donald Trump’s vaccine drive last year. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said skeptics would not get their shots until “this administration acknowledges the efforts of the last one.”

And Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas pointed the finger at the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“Every time Jen Psaki opens her mouth or Dr. Fauci opens his mouth,” he said, “10,000 more people say I’m never going to take the vaccine.”

Some elected Republicans are the ones spreading the falsehoods. Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, a Senate candidate, warned on Twitter of “KGB-style” agents knocking on the doors of unvaccinated Americans — a reference to Biden’s door-to-door vaccine outreach campaign.

Such statements, and the widespread silence by Republicans in the face of vaccine skepticism, are beginning to alarm some strategists and party leaders.

“The way to avoid getting back into the hospital is to get vaccinated,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader and a polio survivor, pleaded on Tuesday, one of the few members of his party to take a different approach. “And I want to encourage everybody to do that and to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”

Nationally, the average of new coronavirus infections has surged nearly 200% in 14 days, to more than 35,000 on Monday, and deaths — a lagging number — are up 44% from two weeks ago. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated on Tuesday that the delta variant accounted for 83% of all new cases.

The political disparity in vaccine hesitancy is stark. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported at the end of June that 86% of Democrats had at least one shot, compared with 52% of Republicans. An analysis by The New York Times in April found that the least vaccinated counties in the country had one thing in common: They voted for Trump.

“There’s a big gap, and it’s growing,” said Jen Kates, a senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “We know that more of the unvaccinated are self-identified Republicans, so they are much more at risk of illness, death and continued spread than fully vaccinated people.”

Conservative swaths of the country are being hit particularly hard. Intensive care units in southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas are filled or filling fast, while 40% of new cases are cropping up in Florida.

At the Capitol on Tuesday, where a vaccinated aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tested positive for the coronavirus, the in-house physician warned lawmakers and staff members that the delta variant is now present. He begged unvaccinated lawmakers to get their shots, and warned that a mask mandate may have to be reimposed.

Yet many leading Republicans are paying little heed to the resurgence. At a hearing before the Senate Health Committee, there was scant mention among Republicans about how to confront vaccine hesitancy, save for the comments of Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who lamented “spurious conspiracy theories” and wondered whether “enemies of our country” were putting out misinformation.

At a news conference by House Republican leaders on Tuesday, the coronavirus was nowhere to be heard amid the “crises” of inflation, the southwestern border and out-of-control spending by the “socialist” Democrats.

Even those lawmakers who expressed concern said there was little politicians could do.

“I’m tracking it daily, and it’s not good,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, whose home state, Missouri, is now a COVID hot spot. But he flatly ruled out mandates to get more Missourians inoculated, saying it would only backfire with conservative voters.

“Where you run into problems is where they say, ‘You must do the following,’” Hawley said. “That is why the president’s language about going door to door is so alarming to people that it has the opposite effect.”

Marshall, a physician who organized other elected Republican doctors to encourage constituents to get vaccinated, concluded that “there’s nothing that anyone can say up here that’s going to convince somebody to take the vaccine.”

Off Capitol Hill, some conservatives have become considerably more forceful. Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox, accused conservative “talking heads” of “literally killing their supporters” with their vaccine skepticism.

The conservative personality Sean Hannity told viewers on Monday night to take the virus seriously and get vaccinated. Steve Doocy, the co-host of Trump’s favorite news program, “Fox & Friends,” had a similar message on Tuesday morning.

But the messages on Fox remain mixed, as do the Republican Party’s.

“You’re seeing some people try to bully people into doing things instead of just encouraging them,” Scalise said. “There’s even talk of putting mask mandates back on people in certain states when the vaccine is widely available, it’s safe and effective.

“We should be encouraging people to get it,” he added, “but not trying to threaten people.”

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