Think back, for a moment, to this time last year: Much of the United States was still in lockdown as coronavirus, still such a dangerous unknown, tore through the populace. Officials had only recently begun to encourage Americans to wear face masks, and orders mandating their use in public places had yet to take effect. Every day brought fresh horror, exacerbated by political leadership that was already proving itself nowhere near up to the task at hand and a prevailing sense of uncertainty not only as to when this would all be over, but if.
There are a lot of ways—too many—in which April 2021 looks like April 2020. Caseloads remain dangerously high, even as we know far more about the virus than we did twelve months ago. We’ve still yet to return to normal, or even “normal,” though we’re getting closer. And politics continues to infect the public response to the health crisis, even though Donald Trump is no longer in office. But there is one big way that things are very different: We now have, in the vaccines, a clear off-ramp out of the pandemic. Millions of Americans have taken it, with half of U.S. adults now having received at least one of their shots—a cause for hope and a credit to Joe Biden, who continues to exceed his vaccination targets. But tempering that optimism is what appears to be a mounting obstacle to reaching herd immunity: An apparent unwillingness, or hesitancy, on the part of many Republicans to take their pokes.
“The fact that one may not want to get vaccinated, in this case a disturbingly large proportion of Republicans, only actually works against where they want to be,” Anthony Fauci said on CNN Sunday. “They want to be able to say these restrictions that are put on by public health recommendations are things that they’re very concerned about. But the way you get rid of those restrictions is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”
The U.S. on Monday opened up vaccine eligibility to all Americans over the age of 16—a milestone that could further increase the pace of vaccinations. “For yourself, your neighbors, and your family,” Biden said, “please get your vaccine.” But polls have suggested around a quarter of Americans—and nearly half of Republicans—are not planning to get vaccinated, which could complicate the country’s quest for herd immunity and potentially prolong the pandemic. It could also leave vaccine-skeptical residents of pro-Trump counties, which a New York Times analysis found to lag behind in shots administered, even more vulnerable to a virus and its dangerous variants that the former president routinely downplayed as little more than a flu. “These are people who were fed untruths about how this virus wasn’t real,” Dr. Lisa Cooper, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, told the Times. “I think it is carrying through in the vaccination realm, too.”
To be sure, this isn’t only a Republican problem—and the issues at play might include not only vaccine hesitancy, but vaccine access. Moreover, as Axios noted, there may be a danger, in pointing fingers, of the shot becoming even more politicized. “What I’m really worried about,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told the outlet, “is building up this identity of, ‘if you’re a Republican, you don’t want the vaccine.’” But that already seems to be happening: As the Times reports, while states press for more doses, some Trump counties continue to have more supply than demand. “It pains me to think that the governor of Michigan is begging for vaccines,” one Wyoming health official told the Times. “And we’ve got vials and vials in our freezer.”
The task, then, might not be preventing the vaccines from getting swept up in America’s partisan culture war, but extricating them from it. To that end, the administration is mobilizing a massive messaging campaign, seeking to win over conservatives, as well as some minorities who have been given reason to be wary of the medical establishment. “What we are doing is we’re trying to get, by a community core, trusted messages that anyone would feel comfortable listening to, whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, or whomever you are,” Fauci said in an ABC News interview Sunday. Whether they can convince enough of the vaccine-hesitant to push the country over the 70% to 90% mark to bring about herd immunity will depend on how much the partisan lines have calcified.
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