Last weekend, a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas crowed that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration had failed to “sucker” most of the American people into getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Clearly that isn’t happening,” writer Alex Berenson said, drawing applause and cheers from the crowd.
Despite the best efforts of some health and government officials, outright hostility against getting vaccinated has taken root among some conservative segments of America. It’s a trend that experts say will be extremely difficult to overcome, thanks to deep political polarization and the spread of misinformation.
“It comes down to trust,” said Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. “And remember, there’s a large proportion that believes the (2020 presidential) election was fraudulent. You think they’re going to believe what this government is telling them? I don’t think so.”
Canadian experts say they’re growing concerned that a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. could impact the reopening of the border. Those travel restrictions could be lifted by mid-August, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — provided vaccination rates stay steady.
The rising infections are being fuelled largely by vaccine resistance, which recent polling suggests is split among party lines.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 86 per cent of Democrats have received at least one vaccine dose, compared to 45 per cent of Republicans. When it came to those who said they will definitely not get the shot, 38 per cent of Republicans said so, while just four per cent of Democrats had the same opinion.
Vaccination statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appear to be backing up that polling data.
Only five states have yet to crack the 50 per cent threshold for at least one vaccine dose among their eligible population — Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Wyoming and Idaho. All five voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, and are led by Republican state governments. Other states with rates lower than the national average also lean Republican, including Tennessee and Missouri.
Nationally, 56.5 per cent of Americans aged 12 and over have received two doses, and 65.2 per cent have received at least one — still short of Biden’s goal to have at least 70 per cent of Americans vaccinated by July 4. The pace of vaccinations being administered has also fallen more than 80 per cent from its peak in April.
COVID-19 cases, meanwhile, are rising again. As of Friday, new infections per capita nationwide have jumped at least 120 per cent within the past 10 days, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
At the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Friday warned of a “pandemic among the unvaccinated.” More than 99 per cent of COVID-19 deaths and 97 per cent of hospitalizations are among people who have not been vaccinated, according to the CDC.
The biggest jump in cases last week came in Florida, accounting for nearly half the national cast count. Yet at the same time, Gov. Ron DeSantis is selling merchandise that says “Don’t Fauci My Florida,” referring to Biden’s chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci.
After Biden announced a door-to-door campaign aimed at reaching unvaccinated Americans, Texas Rep. Chip Roy posted a reworked version of the famous “come and take it” flag. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene referred to those campaigners as Nazi brownshirts.
Misinformation has also been spreading within right-wing media. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has sometimes suggested that the vaccine doesn’t work at all “and they’re just not telling us,” though he has also insisted that he’s in favour of inoculations. Meanwhile, a host on Newsmax, which leans further to the right than Fox, said on-air that vaccines “go against nature,” which the network later distanced itself from.
While the reactions have been framed as a question of personal freedoms and government overreach, political analysts see them much more cynically.
“The Republican Party is determined to deny Joe Biden any successes, and their best electoral strategy is to make sure that Joe Biden looks bad,” said Matthew Lebo, a political science professor at Western University. “That means not helping the economy, not helping voters, not helping the pandemic go away.
“They put it in terms of ‘the socialists are coming to force you to take your shots,’ and the end goal is to make the Democrats the enemy. But that just makes the vaccine the enemy.”
Some Republicans have tried to stress the importance of getting vaccinated, including the party’s top senator Mitch McConnell, who has expressed confusion about the resistance. But Lebo doesn’t see that working.
“People watching Fox and Newsmax aren’t listening to Mitch McConnell,” he said. “Trump disavowed him, so his supporters have too. And right now, the people Trump has endorsed aren’t saying the right things.”
Trump, who was privately vaccinated in January shortly before leaving the White House, has occasionally told his supporters in speeches and media interviews to get the vaccine. But he has also said it should be a personal choice, and has not participated in public service announcements made by other former presidents or sitting Republicans.
Shannon Macdonald, a University of Alberta professor whose research specializes in vaccine hesitancy, says it’s much harder to convince people to get something they’re outright resisting, as opposed to convincing people who have concerns.
Door-to-door outreach may help sway some of those hardliners, she added, but only if those campaigners are providing practical, useful information.
“‘Did you know you’re eligible?’ ‘Do you know where you can get the shot?’ ‘Do you need a ride to the location?’ These are all good questions to ask,” she said. “But a stranger coming to the door and saying, ‘Vaccines are safe and effective, you should get vaccinated,’ that will only make people dig in more.”
That still won’t be enough to fully turn the tide, she warns.
“If it’s a part of their identity — ‘I’m a Republican, and the Republicans I support say we shouldn’t get vaccinated’ — then that’s extremely difficult,” she said.
“The only way you can really change that is if the people who share that identity, and particularly people in leadership with that identity, change their stance on the issue.”
Lebo says there’s a slim chance of that happening, but only after “a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering.”
“We may get to a point where Republican leaders realize, ‘Wait, the Democrats aren’t getting sick, it’s all Republicans who aren’t vaccinated,'” he said. “And then maybe they’ll start telling people to get (vaccinated).
“But the story of the last two years has been people in hospital dying from the disease, saying with their last breaths, ‘How can this be happening? It’s all a hoax.’ So I don’t have a lot of optimism of this craziness breaking anytime soon.”
While some vaccine resistance exists in Canada, it’s not nearly as widespread. Just nine per cent of respondents in the most recent Ipsos poll for Global News said they will definitely not get the shot. The poll did not ask for party affiliation.
Conservative strongholds like Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan boast higher vaccination rates than other provinces. More than 60 per cent of eligible Manitobans are now fully vaccinated, outpacing every jurisdiction except the northern territories.
Macdonald also noted that while some U.S. Republicans are opposing vaccinations in children — even those who are eligible — youth vaccinations in Alberta are being performed at the same rate as adults.
Furness says that until more Americans get vaccinated, it may be necessary to introduce mandatory rapid tests to ensure those coming into Canada won’t spread the virus.
He also wants there to be restrictions for unvaccinated people, including mandatory quarantines, which he says could help incentivize U.S. travellers to finally get the shot — along with the heightened possibility of getting sick.
“It’s going to become increasingly difficult for those people to justify not getting vaccinated, or to pretend that COVID doesn’t exist,” he said.
“And unfortunately, the U.S. is going to see a much larger wave of infections among the unvaccinated (compared to Canada), and it’s going to be frightening.”