The Biden administration is launching a renewed, more nuanced push to tackle a resistance problem of its own — it has more Covid vaccines than people willing or able to take them.
In recent days, officials have leveraged community groups, attempted to lower financial hurdles and utilized top health care officials all in the service of one objective: convincing reluctant folks to get the jab.
The effort comes as local leaders ask for more help from the administration and as questions mount about whether federal regulators have been too cautious in their approach to vaccine safety. And though the administration is deploying an incredible amount of federal resources to solve the hesitancy problem, top health officials concede it may not work.
“I don’t mean to in any way say that I have a total amount of confidence that that 30 percent is going to get their minds changed,” National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said in an interview, “but I sure hope we have some way to, at least with some of those folks, to begin to make some progress, because, as you know, if we don’t succeed in reaching this 70 to 85 percent herd immunity … then the consequence of that will be that this pandemic lingers on.”
In consultation with health experts, the Biden administration has identified three buckets of communities that it needs to get vaccinated: those who were excited to get their shots, the “movable middle” of people who say they want to wait and see, and those who are telling pollsters that they will never get a vaccine.
For the last two buckets, the White House is leaning on local leaders and non-political validators to reach them. Just how large a group the firm resistors are is a topic of debate. But the White House concedes that a Democratic administration isn’t the best messenger for them or necessarily the moveable middle.
“We’re not wearing rose-tinted glasses when it comes to the challenge of confidence or hesitancy, but what you’re not going to see is the White House leading [outreach] efforts [to hardcore Republicans] here. That doesn’t make sense. Our goal isn’t to elevate us, it’s to get shots in arms,” a White House official said. “They don’t want to be belittled. They want to hear the information. They want to hear the facts.”
Though the administration may recognize its own limitations as a messenger, they are still trying. Collins, Biden’s top Covid adviser Anthony Fauci, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy have all been guests on Fox News in an attempt to reach the network’s conservative audience. The administration says it has run TV ads on Fox, NewsMax and Fox online.
A Kaiser Family Foundation polling found that 29 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of white evangelicals say they will never get a vaccine and that almost no messaging breaks through with them. But Collins, a self-described “serious Christian” who has written books on religion and science, said he believes that different tactics and messages are required to reach white evangelicals who may be inherently distrustful of any government program and will recoil at being condescended to.
“I think we’ve had too many instances of people saying, ‘Well, if you don’t get this vaccine, you’re just stupid’. And that’s not helpful and it’s not true. You got to listen and hear what the concerns are and then try to address those point by point,” Collins said.
The administration’s task was complicated further last week after the Feds paused the Johnson and Johnson vaccine amid concerns it was linked to the development of a very rare but serious blood clot. Since that announcement, the rate of vaccinations has begun to decline with daily vaccinations having gone down about 300,000 doses since April 13.
The administration insists that the J&J news has had no impact on hesitancy and limited impact on access. Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited an increase in the number of people polled who said they were likely to get the vaccine compared to a month ago to argue that public opinion has actually improved on the vaccine campaign.
“We’ve always been prepared. That doesn’t mean that when it happens, [you’re like] ‘you don’t think that you could have picked a better day to do this?’” Anita Dunn, senior adviser to the president, told POLITICO. “From day one, as people said, ‘Why are you buying so much vaccine?’ It was with the full knowledge that things would happen along the way, that there’s never been a 100 percent smooth program of this kind.”
But health experts on the ground tell POLITICO they have experienced that new hesitancy first hand, and that the J&J news has fed into it. Dr. Reed Tuckson, the co-founder of the Black Coalition Against Covid-19, said he’s been meeting with Biden officials since the transition, gathering information, providing feedback and calling on staff to speak directly to the Black community to convince them to get the vaccine.
Tuckson says he’s noticed an uptick over the last week in people saying they have concerns or won’t be getting the vaccine. “Some who are predisposed to not be accepting the vaccine will say, ‘I told you so.’ On others, you get, ‘I’m just not sure now …. I think I want to wait to get more information,” Tuckson said of his conversations since the J&J news broke.
Tuckson added that he hasn’t sensed any nervousness from the administration after last Tuesday. “There is no panic, but it is a sober, cleareyed assessment that this is going to be a challenge to the work of saving the nation from the pandemic,” he said.
While administration officials may not be nervous, they are getting more aggressive and creative in trying to pitch the vaccine to skeptical groups.
On Wednesday, Biden announced that the administration would support tax credits for businesses that provide paid leave for Covid-19 vaccine appointments and recovery after the final dose to help mitigate issues of access for some people.
Administration officials say they continue to be hopeful that over the long term, people will see the decision to pause the J&J vaccine as proof the system worked. They have continued to interact with community groups to ensure that message gets through and to stress that the choice is binary: either get folks vaccinated or the pandemic keeps going.
“A few months from now, if that’s what happens, the people who are in the hospital, in the ICU getting sick and dying, are going to be those who didn’t get immunized. And it’ll be pretty obvious that’s the case,” Dr. Collins said. “And I don’t want that to be the wake-up call. We can do better than that. But that could be the downstream scenario if we’re not successful in conveying all the reasons why it’s time for action now.”
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