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Conservative hostility to Biden vaccine push surges with Covid cases on the rise

Some in the GOP have felt compelled to reiterate support for getting the shot, with McConnell saying he was "totally perplexed" by the ongoing resistance.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on July 10, 2021.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on July 10.Dylan Hollingsworth / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

At last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., told the crowd: "Don't come knocking on my door with your 'Fauci ouchie.' You leave us the hell alone."

It's the kind of rhetoric that's common for Boebert, who has positioned herself to the right of most other conservative politicians in Washington. On vaccinations, however, Boebert's message is not the exception. For a sizable chunk of the Republican Party and conservative media apparatus, pushing back on the Biden administration’s efforts to vaccinate the country has become the norm in recent weeks.

That animosity reached a peak this month after President Joe Biden announced his intent to expand those efforts as the delta variant spreads, posing a particular threat to the unvaccinated population. His administration had fallen just short of his July 4 goal of getting 70 percent of the adult population inoculated with at least one dose — a shortcoming that was cheered at CPAC.

"For people who are politically intoxicated, which is a lot of the country right now, it makes sense to celebrate any failure by the administration," former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., told NBC News.

Biden made vaccinations a centerpiece of the early days of his administration. He said the administration would rely on local doctors, faith leaders and other trusted voices to help get over the hump — something research has shown would be most helpful in reaching unvaccinated people. He also pledged to offer "surge teams" to any states requesting assistance with the pandemic.

"We need to go community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood and, oftentimes, door to door, literally knocking on doors to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus," he said.

That plan was quickly seized on by conservative media personalities including Fox News' Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, who decried it as government overreach. At CPAC, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., warned the door-knocking campaign could soon lead to gun or Bible confiscation. Biden's push led a group of 32 of the most conservative House members to accuse him of seeking to "coerce" people into getting the vaccination.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican who has said officials should work to boost vaccinations, claimed such an effort amounted to "trying to scare" people into taking the shots.

"Big Government in control — Joe Biden is sending agents to your door to compel vaccinations," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., tweeted Friday.

Dr. Tom Frieden, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director under President Barack Obama, said the backlash to Biden's comments echoes prior pushback over the idea of “vaccine passports,” masks and other mitigation strategies that have come to define the pandemic discourse.

"It is certainly the case that we're increasingly two countries divided under Covid," he said. "And what you will see in the coming weeks is really big increases in cases in a lot of places — especially in places with low vaccination rates."

While Biden has mostly avoided chastising Republican officials over the vaccine rollout, the White House has fired back at critics of the door-to-door plan.

"The problem right now is that the voices of these credible public health professionals are getting drowned out," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said at Thursday's White House news briefing.

People protest against vaccines in Austin, Texas, on April 18, 2020.Sergio Flores / Getty Images file

Republicans who have backed vaccines have felt compelled to say so, laying bare party divisions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently said he is "totally perplexed" by the ongoing resistance. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it was "moronic" to politicize the vaccine.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., had a more pointed response to the conservative characterization of the government’s vaccination efforts.

"This is outrage politics that is being played by my party and it's going to get Americans killed," he said in an interview with CNN's "State of the Union" this week.

Roughly 70 percent of American adults have received at least one vaccine dose, but many holdouts, including skeptical conservatives, are barely budging and, in some cases, hardening further. Covid cases are on the rise nationally, though the total is nowhere close to what it was months ago.

Meanwhile, slowing vaccination rates — particularly in more conservative areas — indicate an uphill battle to vaccinate remaining holdouts. White House officials said Friday that almost all recent hospitalizations and deaths involve unvaccinated people.

The vaccination rate in many Republican-leaning states trails Democratic-leaning counterparts. As a Kaiser Family Foundation survey this month found, the gap in fully vaccinated populations between counties that voted for Biden and counties that voted for former President Donald Trump is growing — from 6.5 percent in May to 11.7 percent in July.

Additionally, five of the top six states with the highest daily average cases over the past two weeks have below-average vaccination rates and voted for Trump last fall.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that while just 6 percent of Democrats said they were likely to decline inoculation, 47 percent of Republicans said they were unlikely to get the vaccination.

Beyond taking issue with Biden's effort, some conservatives have shown support for a broader pushback against vaccinations.

In Tennessee this week, a top health official said she was fired over efforts to get teens vaccinated, and The Tennessean reported Tuesday that all vaccine outreach aimed at teens, for all diseases, would be paused. On the conservative Newsmax network, host Rob Schmitt recently pondered whether vaccines are "kind of going against nature."

Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative media creator who has left the movement, told NBC News that vaccine resistance on the right predates Covid and Trump, pointing to a 2019 Hill-HarrisX survey showing a gap between Democrats and Republicans in approval for mandatory childhood vaccinations. This difference, he said, is rooted in religious beliefs.

“We have these talking heads who have gotten the vaccine and are telling other people not to get it,” Utah GOP Gov. Spencer Cox said during a news conference Thursday. (Carlson and Ingraham have not said whether they’ve been vaccinated.) “That kind of stuff is dangerous, it’s damaging, and it’s killing people.”

Epidemiologist Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which has studied how to best target pro-vaccination messaging at conservatives, said this politicization ignores health considerations in favor of topics that are core to conservative messaging.

"We're not really talking about a health issue right now," Castrucci said. "We're talking about issues of liberty and freedom and government trust and government overreach. That's the debate we're having. It is interfering with a more thoughtful discussion of a health issue."

"There was a moment to bring unity to this pandemic response," he added. "And we missed it. And we are now dealing with the consequences."