Last week, all the living former U.S. presidents, Democratic and Republican, joined together for an ad campaign touting the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines — except Donald Trump.
At the same time, a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that a full 50 percent of unvaccinated 2020 Trump voters now say they will “never” get vaccinated for COVID-19, up 6 percent from last month.
According to the survey of 1,629 U.S. adults, which was conducted March 4-8, no other unvaccinated group is nearly as likely to say they will “never” get inoculated: not Biden supporters (8 percent), not Black Americans (33 percent) and not Hispanic Americans (22 percent), all of whom have moved in the opposite direction and become less hesitant over time.
Asked Monday if President Biden “want[s] to see President Trump” — who is also the only president who chose to keep his own vaccination private — help persuade his supporters by getting “involved in this messaging,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not mince words.
“Well, if former President Trump woke up tomorrow and wanted to be more vocal about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, certainly we’d support that,” Psaki said. “Every other living former president … has participated in public campaigns. They did not need an engraved invitation to do so.”
The growing concerns about Trump’s lack of involvement in America’s vaccination campaign underscore a looming challenge for the Biden administration: how to ensure that vaccines don’t become the latest public-health precaution to fall prey to partisanship and polarization, much like masks before them.
In recent days, the White House has begun to publicly acknowledge that it might have trouble reaching conservatives, who could become even more hesitant the harder Democrats push. “We recognize as a Democratic administration with a Democratic president that we may not be the most effective messenger to communicate with hard-core supporters of the former president,” Psaki said at Friday’s press briefing when Yahoo News asked about the administration’s plans. “We have to be clear-eyed about that.”
But according to a source familiar with the White House’s plans to address vaccine hesitancy among conservatives, who was granted anonymity to discuss strategy, Team Biden is still finalizing plans on who to enlist in that effort.
By nearly every measure, America’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is rapidly improving. All of the available data from clinical trials and real-world studies has shown the approved vaccines are safe and extremely effective. The U.S. is now administering an average of 2.4 million doses each day, up from 900,000 a day when Biden took office; 21 percent of the population has received at least one shot, which ranks among the highest rates in the world. All told, the U.S. has administered more than 107 million doses to date, nearly a third of the global total given so far. By May, Biden announced last week, providers will have enough supply to vaccinate every adult in America.
But there’s a problem, or there will be soon: Not every adult in America plans to get vaccinated — particularly the adults who identify as Republicans. In order to end the pandemic and resume normal life, experts say, the U.S. needs to maximize the number of people it inoculates. Yet while vaccine acceptance in general is rising as the rollout gains steam, hesitancy among Republicans is actually hardening. In fact, demand for the vaccines may already be waning in conservative states such as Alabama, South Carolina and Louisiana.
According to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll, most Americans (54 percent) say they’ve either gotten vaccinated (22 percent) or plan to get vaccinated in the future (32 percent). Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (74 percent) say the same. But even though Democrats (28 percent) and Republicans (26 percent) say they’ve already gotten jabbed in roughly equal numbers, the share of Republicans who are currently unvaccinated and plan to remain that way (35 percent) is three times as large as the corresponding share of Democrats (just 12 percent).
The combined number of Americans who plan to forgo vaccination means that tens of millions of citizens may be helping to undermine U.S. progress toward herd immunity, lengthening the pandemic and leaving the country vulnerable to future outbreaks. That’s why convincing the skeptics to do otherwise is so important.
Over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said it would be a “game changer” if Trump used his “incredible influence” among Republicans to help reach a demographic that Biden may not be able to reach alone.
“If he came out and said, ‘Go and get vaccinated. It’s really important for your health, the health of your family and the health of the country,’ it seems absolutely inevitable that the vast majority of people who are his close followers would listen to him,” Fauci told “Fox News Sunday.”
So far, Trump has limited his promotion of COVID-19 vaccines to a single public quip.
“So everybody, go get your shot,” Trump said during his Feb. 28 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
John Bridgeland, co-founder of the Covid Collaborative, a coronavirus education initiative that co-created the recently released presidential PSA, agreed in an interview with Yahoo News that Trump could help much more than that.
“If President Trump were to convey to his supporters that the vaccine is safe and effective, that he played a key role and his administration played a key role in moving this vaccine in record time, and that trials showed safety and efficacy, and that he himself and the first lady got the vaccine, that will help improve the larger context in which people are making their individual decisions as to whether to get vaccinated,” said Bridgeland, who served as domestic policy chief under former President George W. Bush.
Yet Bridgeland added that engaging with local leaders is just as important as nurturing national “atmospherics” when trying to persuade hesitant communities.
“At one level, creating the atmospherics, the larger context, that’s an environment that is more conducive to people getting the shot,” Bridgeland explained. “Then [we have to get] extremely local with doctors, nurses, pharmacists, faith-based leaders — places that have direct trusted influence on these millions of Americans that are going to make an individual choice that will help us get to herd immunity or not.”
It’s unclear if the White House has reached out directly to Trump’s team; Psaki dodged a question on the subject at Friday’s briefing, and the current administration has been reluctant to credit or communicate with Biden’s predecessor. Equally unclear is whether the norm-busting Trump would even agree to participate in such a campaign.
Yet Trump probably shouldn’t expect an “engraved invitation” anytime soon. The White House source told Yahoo News that officials there are basing their strategy in part on findings by veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who recently published data in the Washington Post showing that hesitant conservatives trust local health officials far more than national politicians, Trump included. Likewise, the Biden administration has been working with outside groups such as Bridgeland’s to identify leaders who might sway conservatives.
According to the Post, the 19 participants in Luntz’s focus group “blamed their hesitation on factors like the unknown long-term effects of new vaccines” and “accused politicians and government scientists of repeatedly misleading them this past year — often echoing Trump’s charges that Democrats used the virus as an election-year weapon and overhyped its dangers.”
The participants rejected direct efforts by prominent Republican politicians (including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy) to persuade them, adding they would trust their spouse or doctor more than Trump. Instead, the group responded positively to apolitical, data-driven pitches from Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Barack Obama, who emphasized that it took two decades of research to develop the vaccine and that nearly every doctor who has been offered a dose has accepted it.
Asked Monday how he planned to reach reluctant Republicans, Biden sounded as if he’d been briefed on Luntz’s findings. “I discussed it with my team, and they say the thing that has more impact than anything Trump would say to MAGA folks is what the local doctor, what the local preacher, what the local people in the community say,” Biden explained. “I urge all local docs and ministers and priests to talk about why it is important to get that vaccine.”
Initially Psaki seemed to be caught off guard when asked Friday about hesitancy among Republicans, redirecting her response toward nonwhite communities hard-hit by the virus and neglecting to reveal specifics about conservative outreach.
Asked again Monday afternoon, however, Psaki offered up a more substantive framework — a sign that Biden’s effort to reach conservatives is finally ramping up.
The new focus on hesitant Republicans comes as the West Wing becomes increasingly confident in its vaccine rollout. To help deliver an accurate message about vaccine safety and efficacy to conservative communities, the White House has already partnered with groups such as the National Rural Health Association, the National Farmers Union, NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, the Country Music Association Awards and NASCAR.
Bridgeland’s group — which has met weekly with Biden staffers since the transition began in December and works closely with key members of the White House COVID team — is co-chaired by several bipartisan bigwigs, such as former George W. Bush administration staffer and Idaho Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, Democratic presidential candidate Deval Patrick, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally.
Christie’s vaccine advocacy was particularly effective with Luntz’s focus group — not chiefly because of his proximity to the former president but rather because of his personal experience attending a superspreader event at the White House and subsequently spending a week in an intensive care unit with COVID-19.
“We really shouldn’t be all marching in lockstep like lemmings to go and do what the government tells us to do,” the former two-term governor told Luntz’s focus group, according to the Post. “They’ve screwed up too many times for us to do that. But I really do believe the facts that I’ve learned, and the experiences I’ve had, should make at least everybody … think hard” about getting vaccinated.
According to Bridgeland, stories like Christie’s “are so critical to get.” In the coming weeks, Psaki said Monday, Americans should expect “earned media partnerships with trusted messengers” as part of “a big public campaign run out of HHS” with funding from Biden’s recently passed $1.9 trillion stimulus package.
According to the White House source familiar with operations, Biden’s team sees Dr. Francis Collins, the geneticist and devout Christian who leads the National Institutes of Health, as a “significant asset.” In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Collins a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and he frequently appears on faith-based outlets such as the Christian Broadcasting Network. On Tuesday, Collins and Fauci will meet with evangelical leaders at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
The same source adds that the White House’s health equity task force is intimately engaged with vaccine-hesitant communities and is developing specific plans to reach religious and rural Americans.
With vaccine eligibility and availability set to skyrocket in the weeks ahead, one of Biden’s biggest challenges will be ensuring that the pace of vaccination — particularly on the right — keeps up.
“The president’s goal is to vaccinate all Americans, not just those who voted for him,” Psaki said Monday. “Right now, the phase we’re in is that demand for the vaccine still outstrips supply. We won’t be in that phase forever.”
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