A press conference with Republican doctors in Congress, apparently to discuss the Delta variant, instead turned into a forum for lawmakers to repeat unverified claims that the virus had escaped from a laboratory in China and criticize Democrats for failing to thoroughly investigate the origins of Covid.
“It’s their choice,” Rep. Greg Murphy (RN.C.) said when asked if Republicans should urge people to get vaccinated. “It is our patriotic duty to take care of others, but it is also our patriotic duty to understand that we have individual rights in this country. “
This distrust of much of the Republican Party, confirmed by 11 interviews with GOP policymakers, could further complicate the pandemic response, as the Delta variant increases the number of cases and hospitalizations while fewer Americans make the switch. queue for shots. The deteriorating situation is likely to bear the brunt of GOP voters: eight of the 10 states where Covid-19 hospitalizations have increased the fastest are led by Republican governors.
After receiving his first shot of Covid-19 this week, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) Has repeatedly encouraged others to do the same. But given the opportunity on Thursday to rebut vaccine safety fears stoked by prominent conservative skeptics, House GOP lawmaker No.2 objected.
“I haven’t heard any conservatives express doubts,” he said, a day after Charlie Kirk, co-founder of conservative student group Turning Point USA, raised concerns about vaccine safety on Fox News.
The posture has infuriated Biden administration officials and public health experts and crippled a vaccination effort that has so far reached 68% of American adults – below the target the White House had hoped it would achieve. almost three weeks ago.
Daily vaccination rates have fallen steadily, with the United States having on average less than half a million vaccines per day since July 4. And after Republicans seized on President Joe Biden’s vow to go ‘door to door’ to encourage vaccinations to falsely suggest the government would follow those who refuse to get vaccinated, administration officials say they are struggling to bridge an ever-widening partisan divide.
“This has far-reaching consequences,” a senior administration official said of hostility within parts of the GOP. “You put people in danger, and that’s pretty damn serious. It is as bad as we have been.
The faltering vaccination campaign – combined with a rapid return of the virus that has almost exclusively affected unvaccinated Americans – has convinced some notable Republicans to step up their pro-vaccine rhetoric.
McConnell has promoted the clichés on several occasions, denouncing at one point “all those other voices that are obviously giving bad advice.” On Friday, Ivey said “it’s time to start blaming unvaccinated people” after his condition accelerated sharply in Covid-19 cases.
Jerome Adams, the former Trump administration surgeon general, has also taken an increasingly public role in defending the vaccination campaign – issuing dire warnings about Delta and seeking to allay fears in dozens. tweets every day, as well as in editorials and on television.
And in Congress, some lawmakers admitted to being frustrated that the party had not gone further to promote the shootings.
“I mean, it’s our base, isn’t it?” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) Said in an interview. “These are our constituents and I think we have a responsibility to say, get vaccinated. “
Yet few were eager to directly target the loudest and most influential vaccine skeptics within their party, or show much enthusiasm to personally tackle the misinformation that has flourished on social media platforms, the conservative media and in Congress.
“For me, the most important public health measure we can encourage people to take is to get vaccinated,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, where hospitalizations for Covid-19 have increased by more than 50% over the past two weeks. “But we are a free country – people are free to express their own point of view. “
In interviews, several lawmakers declined to speak directly to Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News host who for months oscillated between supporting vaccines and raising a slew of unfounded or misleading concerns about their safety.
Others have either blamed the Biden administration for alienating the Tories, placed their hopes in an increase once the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccines, or downplayed the urgency because the Delta variant has yet to pass. shown to be more virulent than previous strains.
“The good news is it looks like it’s not virulent anymore,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) Said. “If you look at the deaths and hospitalizations, it’s probably no worse than the original virus. “
The GOP’s most outspoken vaccine skeptics have meanwhile amplified their doubts largely unchallenged by those within their party. Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s false claim that Covid-19 was “not dangerous” to some people earned a suspension from Twitter – but little more than shrugs from her colleagues. And a month after hosting a widely criticized event to highlight rare vaccine side effects, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) Continued to oppose the Biden administration’s efforts to get all Americans vaccinated. .
“It scares people when the government almost forces someone to swallow something,” he said. “It’s a drug trial, and they’re being asked to participate, and they should be able to choose yes or no without pressure or coercion. »
Perhaps more than most, these are opinions that made Trump-era health officials cringe – especially after their record-breaking vaccine development work emerged as the rare bright spot. an otherwise disastrous Covid-19 response.
“The entire Operation Warp Speed team wants nothing more than 100% of eligible Americans to be vaccinated,” said Paul Mango, former HHS deputy chief of staff who worked on the sprint. vaccine development.
Yet apart from scattered private discussions, few have played an inordinate public role in promoting the vaccination campaign – former officials doubt they could have a significant impact or remain bitter about the early layoffs by the Biden administration of their work in preparing and deploying vaccines.
“If asked, I will,” Mango said, before searching Biden’s chief medical adviser. “But I won’t be a Tony Fauci chasing the cameras. “
The only person who might be able to unite the GOP behind the vaccination campaign, he added, is former President Donald Trump. But neither Trump nor the White House Biden have shown a willingness to partner. And even then, there is no guarantee that the vast majority of Americans can be convinced.
“I don’t know who the most credible voice is,” Mango said. “I don’t know who in America it would be today. I don’t even know if this person exists.