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Experts say local Republican leaders need to step up and encourage others to get vaccinated against COVID-19. petekarici/Getty Images
  • Some leaders in the Republican party are now encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • Infectious disease experts said they welcome the change in message but add that GOP leaders need to do more.
  • They also suggest that local Republican leaders in organizations such as the chamber of commerce and the Rotary Club speak up on the issue.

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As COVID-19 cases again surge across the nation, Republican leaders who may have wanted to steer clear of vaccine pronouncements are slowly dipping their toes in the “encourage the vax” water.

However, infectious disease experts say while that trickle of change is progress, a stronger united message at both the national and local level is what the United States needs most.

In other words: It’s not enough.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the politicization of COVID has led directly and absolutely without a question to where we are right now,” said Dr. Jeremy Levin, chairman and chief executive officer of Ovid Therapeutics and former chairman of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

To Levin, who has interacted in the biomedical world around the globe, the groundwork for deep mistrust was laid even before the vaccines were created.

“It all stems back to the original denial of the pandemic in early 2020,” he told Healthline.

“The complete contempt by the then administration to (hide) the fact that they were failing to control this,” he said, paired with what he sees as “conflicting messages” that seemed to politicize the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “massive disinformation from the media, particularly FOX news and FOX radio hosts,” all deeply entrenched mistrust in the minds of many.

Now, with the slow shift toward pro-vaccination, some who never spoke up about the need for vaccines are.

Last week, FOX host Sean Hannity encouraged his viewers to take COVID-19 seriously, although he stopped short of fully endorsing vaccinations.

Over the weekend, former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor of Arkansas, announced she’s been inoculated with the “Trump vaccine” and suggested others consider doing the same.

Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the number two Republican in House leadership and a long-time vaccine resister, was vaccinated recently and is urging his constituents to do so.

But still, the GOP House in particular has a long way to go to do what they should to help turn the anti-vax tide, Levin said.

Nearly half of House Republicans won’t say if they’ve been vaccinated, according to a CNN poll.

That sets the parts of the nation that have low vaccination rates up for a tough battle, Levin said.

“The fix will not be simple,” Levin said. “They’ve laid the seeds for a huge national disruption. By not showing leadership in a simple medical issue, they have provided a haven for the virus to grow stronger.”

Healthline reached out to both House and Senate Republican leaders last week.

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who did urge the public to get vaccinated last week, told Healthline that other than that statement, “we don’t have anything else to add at the moment.”

A spokesperson for the House GOP Doctors Caucus declined an interview to discuss the subject, saying “we’d like to hold off on an interview for now.”

Calls and emails to Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, as well as many members of that GOP Doctors Caucus went unanswered.

The lack of coordinated, across-the-board buy-in from the GOP concerns infection disease experts — and not just because the delta variant is doing damage.

Worse could happen, they say.

“Heaven forbid we have a virus that is not just more infective, like the delta, but (even harsher on the body),” Levin said. “I believe history will show that by not joining together right from the start in 2020, many died who did not need to.”

Levin said he finds the lack of coordinated effort from the GOP leadership particularly concerning when it comes to the Doctors Caucus.

“As a physician, my entire life and obligation is to save lives,” he said. “It’s not a political matter. The Caucus has an obligation (as doctors) to do more.”

Levin said he has “real concern this will lead to pockets of United States devastation because of it.”

He said that while this may seem like a new issue, he’s seen it before in the recent past.

Levin points to the opioid crisis, which hit states such as West Virginia and Ohio particularly hard.

“More than 90,000 are dead from that and politicians avoid it,” he said.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, says the time is now in the United States for strong action toward vaccinations.

“I’m in public health, so I always have hope,” he told Healthline.

Schaffner predicted vaccine hesitancy long before the country began delivering shots, but the strength of the opposition surprised him.

“I was surprised we hit the proverbial wall as soon as we did and as hard as we did,” he said.

Like Levin, he attributes that to political statements (and silence) over the pandemic.

Schaffner believes that beyond Congress and national leaders stepping up to speak up as one, the nation needs the same to happen from religious/faith leaders, business leaders such as chambers of commerce, and service organizations such as Rotary and the Lions clubs.

“Local people know their local leaders,” he said. “We need them to step up and be leaders, not followers.”

Schaffner adds that the time for mincing words has passed.

“Statements (urging people to get vaccines) need to be clear and very positive,” he said.

He said leaders who are “still soft” and say things after urging the vaccine like “of course it’s your personal choice” should rethink their statements.

In his home state of Tennessee, Schaffner said he’s seen a lack of that kind of emphasis and wishes there — and everywhere — was more of a call to arms.

“We don’t have anyone saying ‘We’re Tennessee! We’re the volunteers! Let’s do it!’ he said. “We should have a call to action, a timeline, and then remove every barrier.”

Schaffner said while he does not like the word “mandate,” he does feel some strong requirements may help push people to where we need to be.

For instance, he said, if all state employees were required to be vaccinated to work, “The line would form on the right.”

Schaffner sees such possible measures not as taking away freedom, but rather as a way for us all to live safely within our freedom.

“When we drive a car, we all give up some individual inclination and agree to drive on the green light and stop on the red,” he said.

“We might be late, or in a rush, but if we choose to drive on red we are not just risking our own safety, we are risking the safety of others,” he explained. “Not being vaccinated is like driving on the red light. You’re not just putting yourself in danger.”

While most are concerned now about how the delta variant could ravage low-vaccination rate communities, both Levin and Schaffner warn that the future possible danger extends to all.

“The fear we have in public health is that a new variant could evade the current vaccine,” Schaffner said, “and blow away all we have done to date. If you’re unvaccinated, you’re providing the virus a chance to do just that.”

Levin hopes that message helps leaders team up and fight harder to get more people vaccinated.

“It is unacceptable for the United States, the greatest nation in the world, to contemplate (letting more variants happen),” Levin said.

“It’s going to take a sea of change in the behavior of FOX, right wing radio, social influencers as well as leadership to turn this around,” he said.

Levin hopes that in the end, patriotism leads the country to where he feels we should be: a nation with a vast majority of vaccinated citizens.