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23 July 2021updated 07 Sep 2021 11:42am

The race to beat US Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy

As coronavirus cases surge, Republicans have subtly shifted their rhetoric on vaccination. But is it too little, too late?

By Emily Tamkin

Covid-19 infection rates are once again surging in the United States. Over the past two weeks, cases have risen while the number of vaccinations received has remained stubbornly short of President Joe Biden’s target. Yet, this week has at least seen a subtle shift in attitudes towards the vaccine, with several once-reluctant public figures now rolling up their sleeves to get jabbed. 

Steve Scalise, a senior Republican in the House of Representatives, finally got vaccinated on 17 July, after citing increased cases of hospitalisation and the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant. On 20 July, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, told everyone to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.  

It was also revealed that the parent company of Fox News, the right-wing news channel that has become synonymous with scepticism towards vaccine passports, has itself implemented a Covid-19 policy, which includes allowing only the company’s fully-vaccinated employees to work from the office without wearing a mask or social distancing. Just over a month ago, Fox host Tucker Carlson likened the workplace passports to racist laws from the Jim Crow era, similar to “segregation”. 

It’s unclear why this shift among conservatives is happening now. Some have speculated it is because of the spread of the aggressive Delta variant, particularly in states that lean Republican. Or because US stock markets tumbled on 19 July, as international concerns grow about the prospects of economic recovery. 

Whatever the reason, the new support comes not a moment too soon: hospitalisations are up, particularly in areas where vaccination rates are low. There have been breakthrough cases among fully-vaccinated individuals — but the greater risk is still to persons who are not fully-vaccinated, who currently account for over half the country. Three states in particular — Florida, Missouri, and Texas — are now responsible for 40 percent of new cases. 

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Encouragingly, five states where Covid-19 is surging — Florida, Missouri, Louisiana, Arkansas and Nevada — have seen vaccination rates beat the national average for the second week in a row. But immunity takes weeks to develop, and the virus is ravaging communities now.   

The fact that Donald Trump, in a recent statement, tied vaccine hesitancy to the belief that the election was stolen is also profoundly unhelpful. Conspiracies about the vaccine have already percolated through the population and, on 22 July, a CBS morning programme played a video of an interview with a man who, having just survived a bad case of COVID-19, still refused to get vaccinated. 

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 As for the impact of more positive vaccination messaging? Late is, in this case, better than never. But for some, it will be too late.  

[See also: Is Emmanuel macrons coercive vaccination strategy an example for the rest of Europe?]