Last December, Sandra Lindsay became one of the first people to get the newly authorized COVID-19 vaccine. A critical-care nurse in New York, she told the media she wanted to instill public confidence in the vaccine, and, as a Black woman that she wanted to “to inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical” by getting a dose of Pfizer on camera. A poll at the time showed more than half of Black adults would “wait and see” how the vaccination campaign unfolded before getting their shots; 15 percent didn’t want the inoculations at all. Since then, those figures have dropped precipitously, with just a quarter of Black adults now saying they are still unsure and only 10 percent remaining completely resistant.
In a promising signal, across racial and ethnic groups, more people are telling pollsters they want to get the vaccine as soon as possible or have already done so. (Access remains a huge problem and may be one of the reasons why Black and Latino people are not getting shots at the same rate as whites.) Fewer people are in wait-and-see mode and the percentage of people saying they will not get the shots or will do so only if required has ticked down slightly. Now 61 percent of respondents tell Kaiser Health News that they’ve already gotten a dose or are eager to do so. But looking beyond racial demographics, another group seems to only be intensifying its resistance to vaccination: Republicans, close to half of whom say they just don’t want the vaccines.
“The widely reported divide between Blacks and whites in willingness to be vaccinated appears to pale next to differences between political partisans,” Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page wrote.
Elected Republican doctors just cut an ad to try and chip at that wall of resistance and urge their constituents to get their shots. But can the likes of Wyoming senator and orthopedic surgeon John Barrasso or Kansas senator and gynecologist Roger Marshall, convince Republican partisans to get vaccinated? Or do public health officials need to call on the help of an even larger figure, former president Donald Trump, a man who since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in the United States did very little of what health experts recommended.
Some of Trump’s advisers think it’s time.
“They want me to do a commercial saying, ‘Take the vaccine,’” Trump told TV pundit Sean Hannity recently, “and they think that’s very important, and I’d certainly do it.” While Trump has missed key opportunities to promote the vaccines in the past, can he help reduce vaccine hesitancy now?
Noel Brewer, a professor of health behavior at University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, isn’t nearly as bullish as Trump’s team. Because the Trump administration repeatedly downplayed the severity of both COVID-19 the disease and the pandemic, Trump might not be seen as a credible promoter of vaccination. “Trump has a particular facility for lying and for changing his story over time, so although he’s able to sow doubt, I’m not sure he’s able to sow confidence.”
Trump declined to get vaccinated publicly and was absent from a public service announcement on vaccination that featured four former presidents. For Trump to now persuade Republicans to get vaccinated, he would in a sense be arguing against himself—or at least the person who, upon getting discharged from the hospital last fall after a life-threatening bout with COVID-19, told people not to “let it dominate your life.”
The people in charge of vaccine rollouts matter when it comes to instilling public confidence, Brewer said.
“Vaccine confidence is driven in large part by who’s at the front of the room, so by political leaders, and also the people who are in charge of vaccination programs,” Brewer said. “Where leaders have not stood up for vaccination, the confidence has plummeted, and then the vaccination program can collapse.”
He cites the waffling in Japan over human papillomavirus vaccines, which are designed to thwart cervical cancer. After unsubstantiated allegations of adverse events, the Japanese government told health care workers in 2013 to stop actively recommending vaccination. When 17 Japanese academic bodies in 2017 recommended the government renew the recommendations, their plea received scant attention and vaccination rates plummeted. According to an article in The Lancet, vaccine uptake fell from 70 percent in 2013 to 1 percent by April 2020. According to one estimate, Japan’s policy has led to around 5,000 cervical cancer deaths among girls born between 1994 and 2007.
“Japan is still down in the single digits, and thousands of people will die from cervical cancer as a result of their inaction,” Brewer said. “Who’s at the front matters.”
Additionally, when vaccination campaigns and political campaigns coincide, the inoculations can face bitter political headwinds, something Brewer said has affected rollouts in countries like Romania and the Philippines in the past. A similar phenomenon has happened in the United States, where the coronavirus vaccines were a big issue in last year’s presidential election. “Politicking around COVID-19 vaccines has been deeply destructive,” Brewer said.
“The Moderna vaccine was developed by the Trump administration as one of their singular achievements,” he said. “At the same time, the administration spent a lot of airtime dismissing the coronavirus as a threat. One consequence of that is that people believe this, especially people who are on the right. So the doubt created by that administration, is, in my opinion, primarily responsible for the current situation with Republicans and white evangelicals being particularly uninterested in the vaccine.”
It’s hard to fault the former president’s advisers for thinking Trump is “the only one who can fix this,” as one former Trump administration official told CNN recently. After all, the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed helped pave the way for several safe and effective vaccines to be clinically tested and produced in a fraction of the time it normally takes. At times Trump has tried to take credit, recently calling himself “the father” of the vaccines. But for Trump, the desire to project that the country was “rounding the turn” from the pandemic always seemed to overshadow any attempt to promote his administration’s response to the crisis.
While the power of political endorsements is open to debate—news reports frequently cast doubt on the their effectiveness—since the COVID-19 vaccination campaign began, political leaders have often taken their shots on camera. “It’s my impression … that the people who are currently in office have a particular potency in terms of messages that they’re sharing, especially when they’re directly responsible for vaccination efforts,” Brewer said.
The Republican public service announcement on vaccines emphasizes themes likely to appeal to conservatives on the fence about whether to get the inoculation. Marshall, the Kansas senator, asks people to choose “to receive the vaccine so we can throw away our masks and live life as free as we did before.” The only way to “end the government’s restrictions on our freedoms is to take action and get the vaccine,” Indiana Rep. Larry Bucshon, a cardiothoracic surgeon, tells viewers. The ad also pushes messages that could appeal more broadly, mentioning for instance that 100 million vaccines have already been given and that more that 90 percent of doctors have been vaccinated.
Brewer said ad campaigns like this will be important to crushing vaccine hesitancy. “I do think the idea of a national campaign that specifically engages people on the right and white evangelicals will be very productive for increasing uptake of the vaccine,” Brewer said.
Today, I got the shot!!! I hope that you do too!
Thank you Nurse Torres!!! 💙 pic.twitter.com/gPL1Mecv1G
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) April 14, 2021
But whether Trump himself can sway Republican partisans to get the shots, is another matter—which is why the names of other Republican notables come to the fore. “Ivanka Trump got her vaccine in public and tweeted about it,” Brewer said. “And that’s how you help increase vaccine confidence and reduce hesitancy. We need more Ivankas and more Liz Cheneys and so on going and getting the vaccines publicly and talking about it, a lot.”
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent, nonprofit media organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.