Anti-Vaccine Misinformation Keeps the Pandemic Going
For most of the past several decades, the anti-vaccine movement and general vaccine hesitancy did not fall along partisan lines. Despite common stereotypes of “anti-vaxxers” or “privileged granola moms” who wanted to skip vaccines as belonging to one or another political group, vaccine hesitancy as a whole was pretty evenly spread across the aisle.
“Vaccines aren’t a partisan issue. The consensus in favor of vaccination in this country is very strong and extends across every religious, racial, and political group,” Brendan Nyhan, PhD, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College who has published research on vaccine attitudes, told me back in 2015 when I wrote about the non-politics of vaccination.
And that was a good thing: As we’ve watched play out for decades with climate change, the worst thing that can happen in trying to solve a huge scientific problem is for the evidence to become politicized.
Unfortunately, there were inklings early on that vaccination risked becoming more partisan under the Trump administration. Then came the pandemic and the incredibly harmful politicization of public health evidence that seeded the vaccine hesitancy we’re seeing now toward Covid-19 vaccines among conservatives — despite the vaccines’ development as part of a massive government spending initiative from former President Donald Trump.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has been tracking vaccination attitudes throughout the pandemic, and their most recent findings revealed that 46% of Republicans surveyed had already gotten the Covid-19 vaccine, compared to 57% of Independents and 79% of Democrats. And 29% of Republicans said they would “definitely not” get the vaccine, compared to 9% of Independents and 5% of Democrats. These political trends have persisted since the start of the pandemic.
“This is the nightmare situation I’d hoped to avoid,” Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, told me. As co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Hotez has been fighting anti-vaccine misinformation for years and told me the “most dangerous thing that could happen is the Republican Party adopts” anti-vaccine ideas as part of their platform. He pointed to Tucker Carlson’s anti-vaccine rants as an example.
Here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to stay this way. GOP pollster Frank Luntz has been leading focus groups among vaccine-hesitant adults that Washington Post reporter Dan Diamond has been regularly reporting on — and Luntz’s efforts appear to be paying off. As I’ve written before, it’s entirely reasonable to have questions and concerns about the vaccines, and everyone deserves an opportunity to get answers without feeling disrespected or shamed.
Given how politicized vaccination has become and the lower levels of vaccine confidence among conservative-leaning Americans, I was excited when I saw a new video released by 10 Republican congressmen who all have medical degrees of some sort. The video employs one of the most effective interventions for vaccine hesitancy: The use of “trusted messengers” as ambassadors who communicate information about vaccines to subpopulations of people that trust them.
Trusted messengers have been a key strategy in conveying accurate public health information to marginalized groups who have good reasons for skepticism toward the medical establishment after centuries of neglect and mistreatment. But trusted messengers work with ideological differences as well, and this video nails it.
The video is succinct but direct and “speaks the language” of those who vote Republican, with an emphasis on freedom and choice. I strongly, strongly recommend sharing it with any conservative family or friends you have who are still on the fence about getting vaccinated.
Led by Sen. Roger Marshall, MD, of Kansas, who completed a residency in OB-GYN, the congressmen emphasize the safety and effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines and the benefit of opening up businesses and eventually no longer wearing masks if enough Americans choose — with emphasis on choosing — to get vaccinated.
For those of you reading this, Marshall and the others in the video may not be your cup of tea — you may have plenty of rancor for Marshall, in particular, for his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election. But frankly, when it comes to helping everyone come to the decision to get the Covid-19 vaccine, that doesn’t matter. We still have hundreds of people dying every day, and each day the virus continues traveling from person to person, the more opportunities it has to mutate into new variants.
What impresses me so much about the video is that it’s so well targeted to its audience — and that’s what we need right now.
“I come to you today not only as a United States senator but as a physician concerned for the health and safety of our nation,” opens Marshall, wearing a white doctor’s coat like two others in the video. Without being too fast or disconcerting, the video smoothly moves from one senator or representative to another — all with their medical degrees appearing after their names and communicating exactly what people need to hear.
“Look, this vaccine is safe,” says a white-coated Rep. Larry Bucshon, MD, of Indiana. Following him, Rep. John Joyce, MD, of Pennsylvania tells viewers, “Operation Warp Speed brought us safe and effective vaccines, and all in record time.”
Though they mention the speed of development, they address the concerns people usually have about that speed: “The process was rigorous and transparent, and a process that I personally followed very, very closely,” Rep. Brian Babin, DDS, of Texas, says with conviction. Andy Harris, MD, of Maryland firmly says, “The FDA did not skip steps.”
Then they begin using the diction and referencing the values common among Republicans, such as frustration with an overly bureaucratic, powerful government.
“Instead, they cut bureaucratic red tape — not corners — and they got the job done in record time,” says Michael Burgess, MD, of Texas. And he’s correct, as I’ve previously written about how quickly the vaccines were developed.
Then they make a strong recommendation to viewers. “It’s obvious to me from a medical standpoint the only way to protect ourselves and your loved ones,” Rep. Greg Murphy, MD, of North Carolina, begins, “and to end the government’s restrictions on our freedoms, is to take action and get the vaccine,” Bucshon continues, again echoing the Republican theme of freedom.
Rep. Buddy Carter, RPh, of Georgia emphasizes that because we’re in America, we get to choose whether to get the vaccine or not. And then Babin makes the appropriate recommendation: “When the time comes for you to make that final decision, talk it over with your doctor or your pharmacist and consider their recommendation.”
The video emphasizes that doctors, nurses, and pharmacists across the U.S. recommend the vaccine, and Marshall notes over 90% of U.S. doctors have already chosen to get vaccinated. Since social norms are important in vaccination campaigns, that’s a helpful statistic. The video wraps up with, again, common Republican-themed statements that will resonate with their target audience:
Sen. John Barrasso, MD, of Wyoming: “I look forward to the freedom that I and my loved ones will regain once the vast majority of Americans are vaccinated.”
Sen. John Boozman, OD, of Arkansas: “If everyone does their part in the coming weeks, we will once again be able to worship together as a congregation.”
They emphasize getting together with extended family, traveling with friends, and they encourage viewers to “join me — along with over 100 million Americans” in getting the vaccine. Marshall concludes the video with the perfect note, asking people to choose to get the vaccine “so we can throw away our mask and live our life as free as we did before.”
It would have been nice to see this level of public health advocacy with scientifically accurate information from Republicans much earlier in the pandemic, but right now, I can’t afford to waste time or energy complaining about that (right now). Our house is still on fire, and even if these guys are showing up late, they’re still showing up with firehoses. With Republicans making up the majority of still-unvaccinated U.S. adults, this is exactly the kind of PSA we need right now, and I encourage everyone to share it in their circles.