ATLANTA — For some, vaccination has become another political litmus test
Jerry Kotyuk knows he’s in a vulnerable age group for COVID-19. He knows his doctor hopes he’ll get vaccinated. He’s still leaning against it.
“I’m not going to believe everything I’m told,” Kotyuk said. “I’m going to wait and see.”
Jack Wynn of Johns Creek agrees.
“I’m just trying to figure out for myself who to believe,” he said.
The two men have something in common: Both tend to vote Republican. And recent polls show the demographic group most likely to balk at vaccination are Republican men. A Marist poll in mid-March found 47 percent of Republican men said they would not be vaccinated. That compares with 34 percent of Republican women.
Now, public health experts are focusing on this group, as states are in a life-or-death race to vaccinate more people before more dangerous variants of the virus dominate.
“As Americans, we have a shared goal of getting as many people as possible vaccinated,” said Brian Castrucci, president of the de Beaumont Foundation, who has met with the GOP Doctors Caucus to discuss possible communications strategies. “Either we all win, or no one wins.”
When vaccines first rolled out late last year, a top concern for health experts was vaccine skepticism among Black people because of the history of medical mistreatment of African Americans. To overcome mistrust, health experts launched campaigns to listen to concerns, answer questions and assure Black communities of the safety and effectiveness of the shots.
Now, polls show African Americans are the group least likely to refuse vaccination.
Mistrust is also at the root of concerns among Republican men, pollsters say, with common threads revolving around skepticism of government and what government officials say is science. That has made vaccination for some a political litmus test, as masks have been.
But pollsters emphasize that the vaccine skeptics and the vaccine opponents are different groups with different reasons.
Mainstream conservatives want answers they can trust about safety, side effects and the speed at which vaccines were developed. Many don’t see the coronavirus as a serious threat. They want to be assured they won’t be required to carry a government-issued “vaccine passport.”
The fiercest vaccination opponents, though, also cite conspiracy theories about side effects and secret government plans as among their reasons for rejecting the shots.
“When I see the government and media working together to push this vaccine SO hard, I just have to think they want this DNA alteration in as many people as possible,” read one recent post on a QAnon conspiracy theory forum. “I don’t know if they want it as a genetic marker, or they can use it as a way to control population, or some other nefarious purpose.”
“It’s definitely a huge issue within the far right,” said Meghan Rahill, a researcher at Middlebury College’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism.
Rejection of the COVID vaccine comes as many on the far right are feeling dislocated and vulnerable following the outcome of the 2020 election and the wave of arrests resulting from the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Rahill said.
They fear overreaching government control and feel that power needs to be taken back, by force or not, she said. Spreading misinformation about the vaccines is a reaction to that fear, she said.
Conspiracy groups are aided by far-right figures like Nick Fuentes, the white nationalist commentator who rose to national prominence as a key figure in the “Stop the Steal” movement following the November election.
“I will never get a COVID vaccine,” Fuentes wrote Tuesday on Gab, the social media network that has become home to a multitude of extremists banned from other social media platforms.
The post, which offered no other explanation, drew more than 5,000 “likes” and was reposted more than 760 times in a single day.
“We can start by refusing the vaccine. Then the masks,” one Gab user wrote among the hundreds who replied to Fuentes post. “And unroll evey (sic) last evil, until we make America great again!”
The far right also sees a sinister plot behind the idea of creating vaccine passports to allow people to go in certain businesses or travel outside the country. Some describe it as yet another attempt by Democrats to control every aspect of life, from birth to death. Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene called such passports “Biden’s mark of the beast” and a form of “corporate communism.”
Among Georgia’s congressional delegation, all six Democratic representatives told the AJC they had been vaccinated. Four of the eight Republicans told the AJC or the States Newsroom they had been.
Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told the AJC that she supported anyone who chooses to get the vaccine, and her parents have been vaccinated. But she does not intend to.
“I’m 46. I’m healthy, so I trust my immune system,” she told the AJC.
Her Republican colleague Austin Scott has expressed frustration with vaccine hesitancy and posted a video on social media of himself as he was about to get vaccinated.
Megan Squire, a computer scientist at Elon University who tracks far-right extremism on the Internet, said many on the fringe believed they were following Trump’s lead when the former president publicly downplayed the seriousness of the virus. Squire said they embraced conspiracy theories that billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and George Soros are using the drugs to insert microchips into Americans, ignoring that Trump himself was vaccinated.
Such rhetoric can have serious consequences if it means a significant number of Americans refuse to be vaccinated, Squire said. “Stop the steal didn’t really affect people’s day-to-day lives,” she said. “The vaccine is different.”
For those not as far on the right, skepticism means just that: They’re still open. But they have concerns.
The veteran Republican pollster and focus-group expert Frank Luntz recently recorded a group of Republican vaccine skeptics for the de Beaumont Foundation and found that they were not swayed by famous Republican politicians endorsing the shots.
What did sway them, significantly, was vaccine information from doctors.
That’s no surprise to Mollyann Brodie, chief operating officer at the Kaiser Family Foundation and executive director of its polling program. Her research finds less extreme Republicans have legitimate concerns that they want heard and answered.
Brodie also points out that a slight majority of Republican men favor vaccination. Among them is Congressman Austin Scott, R-Tifton. After he was hospitalized with COVID-19, he got vaccinated the first day he was eligible.
The desire for facts rings true for Kotyuk and Wynn. They’re most concerned about side effects of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which result from a new technology called mRNA.
One thing Kotyuk and Wynn share with the more extreme groups is that neither is that concerned about getting the virus or about their potential role in passing it along to others.
For both, one of the biggest aggravations is the fear they see around them.
The COVID-19 vaccines were developed at warp speed. It’s never been done before, and they’re already saving lives. But people have good questions about the process.
One is how this was accomplished so fast.
Experts say the vaccine was developed so quickly “by cutting red tape, not by cutting corners.”
One big part of that was redirecting staff and resources that would normally be devoted to a lot of drugs at once to instead work on these vaccines.
Then, at federal agencies, drug developers and manufacturers, steps that would normally be taken one after the other — with lengthy approval stages in between each step — were instead all taken at the same time. For example, the drug manufacturers built up production at the same time the formulas were being evaluated. That was expensive and not normally done. But scientists say it was safe, because the manufacturers were not allowed to release or sell any of the product unless and until it was authorized.
The same agencies and career scientists that evaluate vaccines in the normal process worked on these.
One of the concerns some skeptics have is that the vaccines have all received an “Emergency Use Authorization” by the federal government, not approval. That’s a fact.
There are fewer years of data for this authorized vaccine than for approved vaccines. However, scientists say, clinical trials were conducted rigorously, with tens of thousands of participants getting the vaccines and getting placebos, to compare outcomes.
Those trials showed the vaccines were safe. They also had to show that the vaccines “may” be effective. In the end, they showed strong evidence the vaccines are highly effective.
The standard for emergency use authorization also included that the “known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product.”
It’s too much, Wynn says.
“If you…wash your hands 18 times a day, wear a mask so you don’t inhale anything, live in a bubble, then in about two or three or four generations, we are going to need vaccines for everything,” Wynn said. “Everything.”
Kotyuk was repelled by CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s plea March 29, which made headlines worldwide. Pointing to countries in Europe now in the throes of new waves of hospitalizations and deaths, she said she felt a sense of “impending doom.”
“Right now I’m scared,” Walensky said.
“I’ll never believe anything she says again,” Kotyuk said. “‘I’m so afraid, I’m so afraid,’” Kotyuk said, mimicking Walensky — “that’s not leadership.”
Kotyuk has paid attention to several things he’s found independently, as well as a video a friend sent him of Dr. Simone Gold, an anti-vaccine activist who first gained national attention for promoting the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19.
But he is also listening to — if not following — his own doctor. The doctor has a photo online of himself getting the vaccine. He asked Kotyuk in January if he was getting vaccinated, and Kotyuk said not yet. Kotyuk cited the fact that he had recently had a mild case of COVID-19 and his concerns about the unknowns of the quickly developed vaccine. He said he planned to wait, and the doctor said that was fine.
Kotyuk recalls that years ago, the doctor wanted Kotyuk and his wife to get a shingles vaccine. They waited a few years and then did.
“I’m evaluating on a case by case basis,” Kotyuk said.
Ariel Hart and Chris Joyner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution