content-header__row content-header__hed” data-testid=”ContentHeaderHed”>COVID Vaccine Scaremongering Is Only Getting Worse The vaccines are an incredible success story, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to most Republican lawmakers or reading coverage in certain corners of the country. And consequences of that misinformation could be profound.
April 22, 2021
A nurse administers a COVID shot at a vaccination site in Massachusetts.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images
For much of the pandemic, efforts by the right to downplay COVID-19 posed one of the biggest obstacles to addressing the public health crisis. Donald Trump and his allies likened the disease to the flu, promised that it would magically disappear, and—when it didn’t—lashed out at health precautions as “worse than the problem itself.” But in recent months, a new problem has arisen: While conservatives failed to show due concern about the threat of COVID, some have been expressing a dangerous alarm about the vaccines that will help us extinguish it—over-hyping the minuscule risks associated with the jabs, and in some cases framing the mass vaccination campaign through the lens of personal freedom rather than public health.
To be sure, it’s not only Republicans who have helped exacerbate vaccine-hesitancy. Just this week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an all-caps screamer on its front page that read VACCINATED TEST POSITIVE—an above-the-fold headline that implies the vaccines are ineffective, though the 71 people in the county who became infected despite being vaccinated represented just .003% of its vaccinated population. Only two of those people were hospitalized, and none died.
The Post-Dispatch front page was particularly egregious, but it’s only one example of how the incredible success story of the COVID vaccines has often been written about in a negative light. “Science has delivered a remarkable breakthrough,” as Leana Wen wrote in the Washington Post on Tuesday. “All of us…should be putting the minimal risks into perspective while celebrating the vaccines’ overwhelming benefits.”
Some Republicans, it should be noted, have helped do that, working to combat the lies, misinformation, and honest misconceptions about the vaccines. “I’m hoping that people get over that skepticism,” Republican Congressman Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist who has been personally vaccinating people in his district to boost confidence in the shots, told ABC News. But too many, both in politics and in the conservative media, have actively contributed to that skepticism. Tucker Carlson used his Fox News program last week to sow doubt in the efficacy of vaccines. “People in charge,” he said, “are acting like it doesn’t work.” The New York Post this week continued to suggest the vaccines are not only ineffective, but potentially dangerous. “Herpes infection possibly linked to COVID-19 vaccine,” blared a misleading Tuesday headline lacking any kind of context.
And Republican lawmakers have made so-called “vaccine passports” their latest cause, with some even invoking the Holocaust to rail against any vaccine requirements. “Proposals like these smack of 1940s Nazi Germany,” Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn told Fox News in March. “We must make every effort to keep America from becoming a ‘show your papers’ society.” But the federal government is unlikely to issue any overarching vaccination mandates, and the executive orders several GOP governors have issued probably won’t be able to keep localities or private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination for certain activities. Still, in making a stink about efforts to encourage people to get vaccinated, the fearmongering over “passports” could ultimately drag the vaccines deeper into the COVID culture wars.
The cost of that is already coming into view. Trump Country is lagging behind in vaccinations, with white conservatives showing more reluctance to getting their jabs than any other demographic. And, as my colleague Bess Levin pointed out Wednesday, Republicans only seem to be digging their heels in more, complicating the nation’s path to herd immunity. “The further we go into the vaccination process,” GOP pollster Frank Luntz told the Washington Post, “the more passionate the hesitancy is.” The Biden administration is seeking to combat that aversion, and even some on the right have tried to promote the vaccines. “GET VAXXED!” the New York Post implored readers in a front-page editorial Thursday. But keeping the vaccine momentum rolling and overcoming hesitancy will require a more sustained effort, and more careful, consistent messaging across the board. “The vaccine is the most important pathway to ending this pandemic,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said this week. “That means we’ve got to get everyone in our country vaccinated.”
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