YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
We want to pick up the conversation where we left off and discuss the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic. President Biden is ramping up his push to get more Americans vaccinated, especially looking at young Americans. On Tuesday the president laid out his administration’s strategy to deal with vaccine hesitancy. Here’s what he had to say.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Now we need to go to community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and ofttimes door to door literally knocking on doors to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus.
MS. ALCINDOR: But as the Delta variant continues to gain ground, what comes next in the battle with COVID-19?
Joining me tonight to discuss this and more are reporters that are great: Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Leigh Ann Caldwell, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News; and Weijia Jiang, senior White House correspondent for CBS News. Thank you so much for being here.
Weijia, I want to start with you. The Biden administration is trying so hard to get more people vaccinated, but we’re – they’re really hitting some challenges here. Talk about those challenges and what their plans are.
WEIJIA JIANG: So from the beginning they’ve really wanted to focus on access and making sure people can easily get the vaccine, and we are beyond that as we talked about on the show, and they also have said that they were not the right messengers to try to convince people, especially Republicans, conservatives in those strongholds that we are seeing are still refusing to get shots. And so, you know, my question remains whether they’ve reached out to the former president about this because it seems that he could perhaps sway a few minds, and what’s really perplexing is that on the one hand Donald Trump wants all the credit for Operation Warp Speed and for making this vaccine available and accessible; on the other hand, he’s radio silent about why people should get it when he really does have that influence, as we’ve seen, over other things. And so I don’t know whether they have plans to do that. Sources are always very – (laughs) – they’re always very prickly when you talk about, you know, that communication, but eventually, you know, he might have to, you know, if he’s willing, use that megaphone to try to persuade people because at this point it is a political argument against the vaccine.
MS. ALCINDOR: Leigh Ann, you’re on Capitol Hill, where a lot of this – the issues at play, the politics at play in this vaccine issue play out. Talk about what Republicans are doing to try to get more people vaccinated and how lawmakers’ efforts – how that contrasts with what we’re seeing on conservative media.
LEIGH ANN CALDWELL: Yeah, well, Democrats and Republicans – well, I guess, let me start, it depends on which Republican you talk to about what they’re doing for getting people vaccinated. Senate Minority Leader McConnell is someone who talks about the importance of vaccines. He has talked about the importance of mask wearing. He was always very bullish on – or, on COVID safety. But then you have Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who is holding events with people who he says have been adversely impacted by the vaccine, and so that is playing into the entire distrust of the vaccine. But this also is a much bigger issue, too. So many especially in the Republican base don’t trust the media, don’t trust their government, don’t trust Dr. Fauci and institutions, and they don’t trust the vaccine, and so this is a societal breakdown of belief in any sort of system, really, and so it goes much deeper than just not trusting the vaccine. But then, as you mentioned, on conservative media this is not something that’s discussed; in fact, there’s a lot of anti-vaccination segments on conversative media, and so they are getting a completely different message than the rest of the country. When they’re talking about Dr. – when they’re highlighting Dr. Fauci, it’s not what he says and what his advice is; it is saying – you know, disparaging him.
MS. ALCINDOR: And we’ve been talking about this, one of the biggest – one of the biggest hurdles is that vaccine hesitancy. Republican men in particular are among the most hesitant group. On Thursday Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell discussed people’s resistance to getting the vaccine. Here’s what he said.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) I’m perplexed by the reluctance of some to get vaccinated, totally perplexed. To use a sports analogy, we’re in the red zone, the last 20 yards before the endzone, but we’re not in the endzone yet because there is resistance for various reasons that seem to have gotten caught up in politics.
MS. ALCINDOR: Leigh Ann, Senator McConnell is – (laughter) – he’s perplexed. There was that long analogy to sports that was basically him saying we’re not there yet. Just your reaction to what Senator McConnell is saying.
MS. CALDWELL: Well, he should talk to members of his party and try to figure out how to change what is actually happening because it is his constituents, his voters who are not getting vaccinated. And even last Sunday on the Sunday shows you had a lot of Republican governors on these Sunday shows talking about vaccine hesitancy, especially among conservatives, and really making an argument that boils down to economics because they want to keep their states open, they want their economies to boom, and they know if people are continuing to get sick, if COVID persists, then that hurts their local businesses, that hurts their state economies, that hurts their tourism, and so it’s good for business, they’re saying, to get vaccinated.
MS. JIANG: And I just want to say, you know, obviously, this is not a light issue, but you have to laugh at the irony of both the messenger and the message here, right, because, you know, where was Mitch McConnell during that entire stretch of time in the early stages of the pandemic when their leader of the Republican Party was really laying the foundation for this doubt that we’re seeing now, and where was he in calling out Trump at that time and trying to embrace and support science? So much missed time happened, as we witnessed, in that administration, so for him to now come out with this message is, I think, why I was chuckling.
DAN BALZ: But he’s also hesitant to lay it on Republicans.
MS. JIANG: Right, yeah.
MS. ALCINDOR: For various reasons.
MR. BALZ: Right, for – yeah, and just he won’t – he won’t address the big issue, you know. I mean, if you look at the data at this point and you’re not vaccinated, and you see that, what, 99 percent of the people who are currently dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated people – now, some people live with a level of risk that’s higher than what other people live with, but there are political reasons that people are not doing this. We did a poll with ABC that we published over the weekend and the – you know, the percentage of Republicans who have gotten a vaccination is significantly lower than Democrats; we know that. When we asked, OK, of those of you who haven’t gotten it, do you – are you probably going to get it or not, 47 percent of Republicans said either definitely not or probably not, and people under 50 40 percent said definitely not and another 17 percent said probably not – 57 percent of Republicans under the age of 50 are unlikely to get the vaccination. I don’t know what the administration could do in the face of that resistance.
MS. ALCINDOR: What can the administration do? I mean, I was there on that call when the CDC director said 99.5 percent of people dying of COVID are people that were unvaccinated, and I had to almost rewind to say, did I hear her right, did you say 99 percent? She said there were preventable deaths. What’s the administration to do?
MS. JIANG: I mean, they are giving out beer. You know, some states are giving out guns – my home state of West Virginia, I don’t know because they’ve already tried incentives, they’ve already tried to, you know, jam as many stats as you mentioned that are really scary and try to get those out there to let people know that this is a matter of life and death. So, you know, they really are relying on local leaders, on physicians, on other medical experts in those communities to try to spread the message, but in terms of incentivizing it I don’t know what more they can do.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Dan, as we’re talking about what’s going on domestically, it’s not lost on me that in the middle of all this abroad in places like Haiti, where the president was assassinated, people are desperate for the vaccine. What does it say about the global efforts and the global need for the vaccine, what we’re seeing happen at the Olympics and other places?
MR. BALZ: Well, it’s a reminder of the haves and have-nots in the world. And the richer countries are the ones that are vaccinating more people. There may be gaps within those countries, but richer countries have the availability of vaccinations. They have the ability to distribute them and they have a willing population to try to get them. In these poorer countries, that doesn’t exist – they don’t have vaccines available.
The wealthier countries – when the president was in Europe for the G-7 meeting, they pledged, you know, a billion or two billion doses to be sent to other countries. But that is not enough to do what needs to be done. And we’re now at a moment, because of the Delta variant, where there’s a greater sense of urgency to try to get vaccinations as widely across the globe as we can. And that is – that is another enormous problem that not just this administration but other countries around the world that have these vaccines are going to have to deal with, and deal with pretty swiftly.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Leigh Ann, on Capitol Hill, of course, there’s a lot of stuff stalled on the Hill, but I wonder if there’s any sort of talk about prevention for future pandemics, what the thoughts are on what they’ve learned and what lawmakers have learned from this pandemic.
MS. CALDWELL: There was a little bit of money in the last COVID relief bill for future pandemics. And then there is Senator Patty Murray, the head of the Health and Education and Labor Committee. She is readying legislation to help fund and prepare for a future pandemic. So that is something that they are thinking about. You know, it’s not necessarily the headline grabbling priority right now, with everything else that Congress is trying to get done.
MS. ALCINDOR: There’s a lot.
MS. CALDWELL: But they’re thinking about it. Perhaps in this appropriations process they will fund it, even though they are very far behind on that process and the fiscal year ends at the end of September.
MR. BALZ: But it’s a reminder – I did a story very early on in the – during the pandemic about why government is never prepared for these things. And one of the reasons is there’s very little political incentive or political reward for getting prepared for something. There’s reward if you respond quickly and efficiently when there is a problem, but it’s always a low priority to seek the funding, to get the support for the funding. So it’s – given everything we’ve gone through, you would think that people would say, well, this is a priority, or this should be a priority, and yet we see that it’s not likely to be the – you know, anywhere close to a top priority.
MS. CALDWELL: If you preempt a crisis then there’s no crisis to try to help. (Laughs.)
MR. BALZ: Right.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, Weijia, I want to ask you two quick questions. The first is, are we – is the Biden administration, based on your reporting, going to come out for mandates of vaccines at all? I’ve heard from my sources there’s a lot of caution on that because of the politics of this. What are you hearing? And then also, what’s the deal with the booster shot? (Laughter.) Pfizer was like, yes, yes, we definitely need booster shots; FDA and CDC were like, not so fast.
MS. JIANG: Right, this is – was really awkward messaging, because Pfizer came out and said they were seeking an FDA approval for emergency use of a third shot, in case we get to that point, and then immediately, almost, the government said, wait, nobody needs a third shot. And so there are lots of questions today about why that messaging wasn’t better coordinated, because that obviously leads to more confusion and more skepticism about the vaccine when you have, you know, one of the main manufacturers saying something different.
And so Jen Psaki, the press secretary, said over and over that, look, this is a private company. They do want they want. We have to do what we feel we need. But this is a private company that has received billions and billions of dollars from the U.S. government. So you would think that at the very least they were able to get this message together, but the line from medical experts in the administration is that right now we do not need a booster shot.
To your other question, from day one they’ve been very clear that they do not plan to mandate vaccines for anything, and that they’re relying on the private sector to do that because, again, they don’t want what is already a very fragile relationship with some Americans to worsen because of them telling them what to do with regard to their health. However, you know, it’s hard to imagine how we’re going to really get out of this or reach herd immunity if more people don’t get vaccinated.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, well, thank you, all of you. And before we go, this week 14-year-old Zaila Avant-Garde from Harvey, Louisiana, made history: She became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And she’s not only a spelling bee champ; she’s a star athlete who holds three Guinness World Records related to dribbling basketballs. Congratulations, Zaila. You are way more impressive than I was at that age. So that is amazing.
We’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Dan, Leigh Ann and Weijia for your insights, and thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind-the-scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.