There's something new in the air, and it's not just the Delta variant.
Now that the pandemic is isolated mostly to those who won't get the vaccine, and vaccination rates lag particularly in red states, Republican governors who raced to pander to personal freedom and enact bans on mask and vaccine requirements are pushing their citizens to get the shot as Covid rates rise and their states' hospitals fill up.
After months of pushing vaccine paranoia about government overreach, Fox News is airing a PSA encouraging viewers to visit a government website and get vaccinated.
A top Republican lawmaker in the House, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, after waiting months, revealed he'd finally started the vaccine process this week.
There is a palpable shift in attitude toward the Covid vaccine among some conservative leaders and influencers. Now that they've made very clear they think it's a personal choice to get vaccinated, please for the love of God get vaccinated.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a polio survivor who has long embraced the vaccine, forcefully encouraged Kentuckians to ignore the anti-vaccine voices "giving demonstrably bad advice" and get the shot "as rapidly as possible, or we're going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don't yearn for, that we went through last year."
And Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican whose state has the lowest vaccination rate in the country, was upfront in saying it's "time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks" for the rise in cases while pleading for residents in her state to get the vaccine, which she called "the greatest weapon we have to fight Covid."
None of your business
But not everyone is on board with this message. Tucker Carlson, the gadfly Fox News host who preaches fear of the government from Fox's top rated position, was still spewing against the vaccine Wednesday night.
Republican lawmakers bristled when CNN asked who among them had gotten the shot. Democrats have said every one of their members in the House of Representatives is vaccinated. But nearly half of House Republicans won't publicly say what their status is.
"I don't think it's anybody's damn business whether I'm vaccinated or not," Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas told CNN. "This is ridiculous, what we're doing. The American people are fully capable of making an educated decision about whether they want to get the vaccine or not."
Who is and is not getting vaccinated?
And yet with the vaccine readily available, a lot of Americans are making the decision not to get it.
Less than half the total population (48.8%) is fully vaccinated. Excluding those under 12 who can't yet get the shot, 57% of the country is vaccinated and nearly 66% have started the process.
Cases are up across the country, but generally speaking, states that went Republican in the 2020 election have lower vaccination rates than those that went for President Joe Biden, and they are the focus of this new summer surge. That could make Biden an ineffective messenger for the fact that the pandemic is now focused where people don't believe the government should take an active role in fighting it.
The pandemic is now focused on one group of people
"We have a pandemic for those who haven't gotten a vaccination. It's that basic, that simple. 10,000 people have recently died. 9,950 of them, thereabouts, are people who hadn't been vaccinated," Biden said during CNN's presidential town hall on Wednesday night in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While the new talking point from Biden is that the pandemic is now focused squarely on the unvaccinated, it's false to think that's just White conservatives watching Fox News. In fact, racial minorities have felt the brunt of Covid around the country, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis:
For example, in California, 30% of vaccinations have gone to Hispanic people, while they account for 63% of cases, 48% of deaths, and 40% of the total population in the state. Similarly, in the District of Columbia, Black people have received 43% of vaccinations, while they make up 56% of cases, 71% of deaths, and 46% of the total population. The size of these differences varies across states. The number of states where the shares of vaccinations received by Black and Hispanic people are more proportionate to their shares of the total population and/or their shares of cases or deaths in the state has grown over time.
Why some people won't get the vaccine
Politics certainly is a factor, though, in who is and is not getting vaccinated. In a Kaiser survey from June, 86% of Democrats reported getting at least one dose and were the most-vaccinated subgroup. Just 52% of Republicans reported getting at least one dose and were among the least-vaccinated subgroups. Republicans were also, along with rural residents and White Evangelical Christians, the most likely to say they would definitely not get the shot.
When CBS/YouGov asked in June why people weren't getting the shot, allowing more than one answer, mistrust of the government and disbelief in the vaccine featured throughout the results. Forty percent said they don't trust the government, a third said they don't trust scientists, more than a quarter said they aren't that worried about Covid-19 and a quarter said they don't generally get any kind of vaccine. Half said they thought the vaccine was "still too untested," with slightly less than that saying they were worried about allergies or side effects.
This is where skepticism in conservative outlets and social media could play an additional role, feeding doubts that exist already.
Some groups are more hesitant than hostile
It is not just White, rural and Evangelical people who are skeptical of the vaccine, according to Kaiser. Black adults were less likely to say they would definitely not get vaccinated (9%), but at 60% reporting having gotten the shot, they were also less likely than White adults or Hispanic adults to have gotten it.
Those ratios could be changing. Black people make up about 12% of the US population, but were 14% of the people who initiated vaccination in the last two weeks, according to Kaiser's more recent analysis of CDC data. There's even more growth among Hispanics, who represent 17% of the US population and were 30% those who recently initiated the vaccination process.
Protecting the vaccinated from masks
Each state has its own data on current cases, hospitalizations and deaths. And they all tell the same story. Of nearly 9,000 Texas Covid deaths since February, all but 43 were among the unvaccinated. Just about 43% of Texans have been fully vaccinated, however, and the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, said this week it would be inappropriate to ask them to mask up again.
He made the comments explaining why Texas schools would not be allowed to require masks. Schoolkids under 12 are obviously among the 57% of Texans who aren't vaccinated.
Pandering vs. posturing
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, actively encourages Floridians to get vaccinated and bragged this week about how his state prioritized senior citizens soon after vaccines were approved.
But he's selling "Don't Fauci my Florida" shirts on his campaign website, a derisive allusion to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert.
DeSantis has also vowed to continue his fight with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and cruise liners that want to require proof of vaccination from passengers itching to get into confined spaces for pleasure cruises.
He'll go all the way to the Supreme Court, he said this week, just as Florida leapt to the top of the list of states with new Covid cases and hospitalizations.
He's also ruled out the possibility of another statewide lockdown and argued local jurisdictions that want to reimpose mask requirements are sending the wrong message, no matter how many new cases there are in his state.
"I get a little bit frustrated when I see some of these jurisdictions saying, even if you're healthy and vaccinated you must wear a mask because we're seeing increased cases," DeSantis said Wednesday during a press conference in St. Petersburg. "Understand what that message is sending to people who aren't vaccinated. It's telling them that the vaccines don't work."
The CDC's mask guidance felt like freedom. It may have been a mistake.
As if his fight with the CDC over vaccine requirements isn't doing something similar.
But the CDC will have to deal with the logic underlying DeSantis' opposition to new mask requirements since their push to undo mask requirements as an enticement to get more people vaccinated appears to be wearing off.
Former Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams wrote in the Washington Post the CDC should reconsider its larger mask guidance immediately and get more people to cover their faces indoors. The government was wrong when it argued against masking early in the pandemic, he argued, and it was wrong to use unmasking as a carrot to get people vaccinated.
"After realizing you've erred, the best way forward is to own the situation and hit the reset button. That's what I did — and that's what the CDC needs to do, too," he said.
The government could recommend kids wear masks in school
Biden said at the CNN town hall in Ohio he expects the CDC may recommend masks for unvaccinated students (that means everyone under 12) in the fall. That could lead to another standoff between the federal government and Florida. DeSantis is among the growing list of states to already ban mask requirements for students.
Florida has the most new Covid cases, but Arkansas has the most as a percentage of its population. The Republican governor there, Asa Hutchinson, also signed a bill that bans schools from requiring vaccines.
That doesn't mean he opposes vaccines. He went on a three-day tour of the state to meet vaccinate hostility first hand.
Other GOP governors have desperately called on the US Food and Drug Administration to give full approval to the vaccine, a valid argument since just about half the country has gotten it. That final signoff would be another nudge in favor of the vaccine's safety and clear a roadblock to efforts at requiring it. Biden suggested the approval could come as soon as this fall, although the FDA has yet to set a timeline.
For now, the vaccine remains for emergency use even though so much of the country has bought in and leaders are finding it so hard to get the rest of Americans to do the same.
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.
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