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High-profile Republicans this week lined up to call for their supporters to be inoculated in a sharp break with the loud vaccine scepticism expressed by many party members.
Party strategists said the sudden sense of urgency reflected a dawning realisation among Republicans that they risked being blamed for not doing enough to head off a surge of infections in red US states where vaccination rates are stubbornly low.
“We as a Republican party have decided that we have to be all in on the vaccine, even though we’re not sure where our followers are,” said John Feehery, a partner at EFB Advocacy and a former Republican congressional aide.
“There’s real political risk in the idea of re-shutting down the country. I think Republicans don’t want to be blamed for it.”
Republican governors that had made headlines in recent months by banning officials, companies and colleges from cajoling people into having a jab were this week instead touting the benefits of vaccinations to hesitant residents of their states.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is widely tipped as a 2024 presidential candidate, in May signed a bill that banned the state’s businesses from asking customers to provide proof of vaccination. He also legislated to prevent colleges from mandating inoculations for students.
But this week DeSantis urged Floridians to get inoculated. “These vaccines are saving lives,” he said. “They are reducing mortality.”
His counterpart in Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, signed a bill banning vaccine requirements in April, yet has embarked on a tour of the state to try to overcome deep-seated scepticism towards inoculations.
Their entreaties were echoed in Washington, where Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, this week urged “anybody out there willing to listen” to “get vaccinated”.
And on Thursday, a group of Republican members of Congress who are also trained doctors teamed up with two high-profile pro-Trump lawmakers, Steve Scalise and Elise Stefanik, to broadcast a similar message.
However, the message from the party is still far from full-throated. Andy Harris, one of the Republican lawmakers at Thursday’s event, later told the Financial Times that “people for whom the benefits clearly outweigh the risk . . . should get vaccinated”.
But he added: “For others however, there are still side effects that are coming to light, and these are decisions that should be discussed with a trusted healthcare provider.”
Some public health experts note the party’s stance is muddled and comes after several months during which they had allowed vaccine hesitancy to take root in Republican strongholds.
“We have established this narrative that Republicans are against the vaccine,” said Brian Castrucci of the de Beaumont Foundation, who this week canvassed voters on their attitudes towards inoculations.
“Based on our focus group it looks like it is going to be very hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” he added.
The US as a whole has administered at least one shot to 56 per cent of the population, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Republican Alabama and Mississippi, that figure is 42 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively.
As a result Covid-19 positive case rates are now rising much more quickly in those states than other parts of the US, fuelled in large part by the highly-transmissible Delta variant.
Jeff Zients, the head of the White House Covid-19 task force, said on Thursday that 40 per cent of Covid-19 infections now come from just three states, all with Republican governors: Texas, Missouri and Florida.
The sudden shift in the Republican party’s tone has been mirrored at Fox News, the rightwing television news channel where hosts have frequently raised doubts about the safety of the vaccines. This week the outlet broadcast a public service announcement urging viewers to have their shot.
And Sean Hannity, one of the channel’s most high-profile hosts, told his audience this week: “I believe in science. I believe in the science of vaccination.”
The change-of-heart at Fox prompted gentle mockery from US President Joe Biden during a televised town hall in Ohio this week.
“They’ve had an altar call, some of those guys. All of a sudden, they’re out there saying, ‘Let’s get vaccinated, let’s get vaccinated’.” But he added: “I shouldn’t make fun of this. That’s good.”
Good though it may be, it might also be too little too late, at least according to the members of Castrucci’s focus group.
When asked to respond to Hannity’s call-to-arms, viewers were unconvinced. “It looks like he was forced to say that,” said one participant.
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