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Why 41 percent of Republicans don’t plan to get the COVID vaccine

Although nearly 41 million Americans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one segment of the population remains steadfast in its opposition to getting the vaccine: Republicans. Recent polls, including our latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, shows at least 41 percent of Republicans don't plan to get vaccinated. Yamiche Alcindor reports on the role of politics in American vaccination efforts.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly 41 million Americans are now fully vaccinated. But, as many polls show, including our recent "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll, one segment of the population remains steadfast in their opposition to getting a vaccine: Republicans.

    Yamiche Alcindor reports on the role that politics is playing in the effort to vaccinate America.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Across the country, vaccinations are ramping up. But a new public health challenge has emerged: persuading millions of Republicans to get the shot.

  • Michael Karr:

    I'm just not ready right now to jump in my car, run out, go to my doctor or wherever I have to go, and get that vaccine.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Sixty-five-year-old Michael Karr lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He's a supporter of former President Donald Trump. And while he's eligible to receive the vaccine, he's still not sure if he will.

    What's the hesitancy there?

  • Michael Karr:

    I have never had the flu vaccine. I'm 65 years old. Probably should be getting the flu vaccine, but I don't. Am I chancing it? Yes, probably. But I just have never taken the vaccine before. Didn't really see the need for it. I'm kind of in that same boat with COVID-19.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Karr is not alone. According to a recent "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll, 41 percent of all Republicans say they won't get a COVID-19 vaccine.

    That makes them the most vaccine-hesitant demographic in the nation. And public health experts warn, if that opposition continues, it could significantly hamper the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

    The virus has already killed nearly 540,000 Americans. Public health officials believe somewhere between 70 and 85 percent of all Americans will need to take the vaccine in order to reach what's known as herd immunity.

  • Man:

    My fear of the vaccine is more than my fear of getting the illness.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last weekend, longtime GOP strategist Frank Luntz conducted a virtual focus group with 19 vaccine-hesitant Republicans from around the country. Michael Karr was one of them.

  • Frank Luntz:

    When I say COVID-19 vaccination, vaccine, Adam, what do you think of first?

  • Man:

    A miracle, albeit suspicious.

  • Man:

    Rushed.

  • Man:

    Long-term side effects unknown.

  • Woman:

    Uncertainty.

  • Woman:

    Untrustworthy.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Luntz worked with the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health nonprofit, to create pro-vaccine messaging aimed at conservatives.

  • Frank Luntz:

    This is 35 million people. how are we going to get our country into this herd immunity if 35 million people won't take the vaccine for political reasons or partisan reasons or Washington reasons?

    And the amazing thing is, it's probably Donald Trump's greatest success of his administration, the speed by which these vaccines were developed. And yet it's his own people, the people who voted for him, that are most hesitant to take it. Who would have thought?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Trump was vaccinated against COVID-19 before leaving the White House, but he chose not to do so in public.

  • George W. Bush:

    It's important for our fellow citizens to get vaccinated.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And he was noticeably absent from a recent ad featuring other former presidents who called on Americans to get vaccinated.

    After mostly dodging the issue, earlier this week, he appeared on FOX News and said this:

  • Donald Trump:

    I would recommend it to a lot of people that don't want to get it. And a lot of those people voted for me, frankly. But I — again, we have our freedoms, and we have to live by that. And I agree with that also.

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    being against vaccines has been seen now as a badge or as a sign of loyalty to the Republican Party.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Dr. Peter Hotez is the co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital.

    He says anti-vaccine sentiments already existed on the fringes of both the Democratic and Republican parties. But, in recent years, this movement has resonated most with conservatives who are skeptical of the government.

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    It initially began in Orange County, California. In response to a measles epidemic there, the California legislature closed vaccine exemptions, and that kind of ignited this first politicization.

    But it was really in Texas where it found a home to amplify. And now we have over 72,000 kids in Texas denied access to their vaccinations.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And he says this movement was thrust into the national spotlight when then-candidate Donald Trump spread a well-known falsehood about vaccines.

  • Donald Trump:

    Just the other day, 2 years old, 2.5 years old, a child, a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    We underestimated how powerful this is and the deadly consequences that it's had for the American people, not only around anti-vaccine, but actually against science more broadly, because this is what led to defiance of masks and social distancing. The anti-science platform is now mainstream with the Republican Party.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Hotez says these anti-vaccine viewpoints are often amplified by conservative media.

  • Tucker Carlson:

    One of those questions is, how effective is this coronavirus vaccine? How necessary is it to take the vaccine? Don't dismiss those questions from anti-vaxxers.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But the challenge for the Biden administration is preventing that message from spreading. This week, the president called on local leaders to help in that effort.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    I urge all local docs and ministers and priests and everybody to talk about why, why it's important to get to get that vaccine and, even after that, until everyone is, in fact, vaccinated, to wear this mask.

  • Rev. Seth Nelson:

    We're very glad that you have decided to join us.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Religious leaders, like Seth Nelson, a Lutheran pastor in the rural community of Ronan, Montana. He was vaccinated in early January, and has been encouraging his congregation to do so as well.

  • Rev. Seth Nelson:

    A number one concern I'm hearing from church members who don't want to get the vaccine is that there's still is a lot of unknowns with how quickly it came to be implemented and distributed.

    And I think, for some folks who've been felt forced to wear masks and distance and shut down and all that stuff, I kind of get the sense that some — some of them resisting taking the vaccine as it is as much about them being able to kind of control something in a very uncontrolled situation.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Despite the fact that conservatives are now the most vaccine-hesitant group, much of the public health messaging has been directed at Black Americans. That's created a perception that Black Americans simply don't want the vaccine, according to Cheryl Grills. She's a clinical psychologist at Loyola Marymount University.

  • Cheryl Grills:

    If people accept the argument that it's hesitancy that is the reason why we see such low numbers, then you don't have to go and look for other possible competing causes.

    It then distracts us from looking at the real reasons that Black folks are not getting vaccinated at the rates they should be in this country. It's not about hesitancy. It's about access. And then, in addition to access, it's about having clear and credible messaging about the vaccine's safety. Just talk to us.

  • Woman:

    I probably needed to separate my reaction to the government involvement in this and look at just the science.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Frank Luntz says that same effort is also needed to convince Trump supporters to take the vaccine.

  • Frank Luntz:

    Republicans believe in personal responsibility. Well, what is more personally responsible than to take a vaccine that will not only keep you safe, it'll keep your family safe, your neighborhood safe, your friends safe? And they have got to connect the dots.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Back in Oklahoma, that's a message that seemed to resonate with Michael Karr.

  • Michael Karr:

    I would say now I'm leaning a little more towards being open to getting the vaccine. But, again, I want it to be my decision. I want to be educated, not coerced.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's a decision that many Republicans want to make for themselves, but one that public health officials are now anxiously awaiting.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

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