After weeks of sometimes depressing, sometimes infuriating headlines about intransigent vaccine hesitancy in mostly red areas of the country, health officials appear to be making some headway with the unvaccinated even as case counts surge and some hospitals begin to reach a breaking point.
The pace of vaccine shots being administered on a daily basis is the highest it's been in two weeks, with a 7-day average of 582,659 shots per day, according to CDC data relayed by CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins.
And as of Monday, the 7-day average of newly vaccinated people in the U.S. was up 24% over a week ago, according to Cyrus Shahpar, the White House COVID-19 data director.
Last Thursday, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters that the five states with the highest case rates—Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada—"had a higher rate of people getting newly vaccinated compared to the national average."
But even with some positive signs emerging, the reality on the ground in many red states is still dire and extraordinarily frustrating for health officials.
In Alabama, George Grabryan and Mike Melton, two emergency management officials who have helped local residents navigate a series of natural disasters over several decades have been flummoxed by their inability to reach those very same people with messages about the vaccine. In rural Lauerdale County, just 34% of residents are vaccinated, writes Politico, while the delta variant has spiked new infections in the area by 300% in the past couple weeks.
“I've been out to the funeral home for more visitations this year than I have before,” Grabryan said. “There’s no one in this area that doesn’t know someone who was affected by it.”
And yet the gusher of misinformation and disinformation driven mainly by social media (Facebook, in particular) and Fox News has dealt a lethal blow to health officials struggling to get more local residents vaccinated. Indeed, in two of the states hardest hit by the delta variant—Louisiana and Alabama—health advocates ranging from public officials to physicians to local volunteers told Politico that social media and some news outlets are the main culprits in suppressing vaccination rates.
Doctors and health officials in Alabama and Louisiana say their only hope for getting people vaccinated is if the media outlets that message to these areas, primarily Fox News, start advocating people get the shot, instead of pushing them away from the jab.
But as desperate as they continue to be, local health officials in many red states have warned against sending federal "surge teams" to go door-to-door in conservative areas, fearing it would only exacerbate the problem. At base, Fox News and many Republican politicians have taught their loyalists to distrust the federal government, even when lives are at stake.
“I don’t know going door to door would help us,” said Karen Landers, an Alabama state health officer in Sheffield. “People in more rural areas … you’re going on to their property. It might not be the best idea to have them do that because people are protective of their privacy.”
The reality that red states are reeling from the latest surge in cases is also starting to tear into the core of GOP messaging on the pandemic. While some Republicans are reveling in the inability of the Biden administration to fully vanquish the coronavirus, others are starting to realize they might have a real political problem on their hands.
After House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana finally got vaccinated last week and encouraged other unvaccinated folks to follow suit, he also lied about the many conservative pundits and lawmakers who have purposely stoked anti-vaccine fears for months now. “I haven’t heard any conservatives raising doubts,” Scalise said despite all evidence to the contrary.
In Florida, where new COVID-19 infections are at their highest rate since January, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has developed a split personality on the issue. On the one hand, DeSantis has railed against mask mandates and tried to score political points by promising that he wouldn't let his 3-year-old be "muzzled" by any forthcoming federal guidelines about masking in schools.
“I’ve got a 3-year-old son, and you’ve got people like [Dr. Anthony] Fauci saying ‘he should be muzzled and you should be throwing masks on these 3-year-old kids,'" DeSantis said late last week. "It’s totally unacceptable."
For the record, Dr. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, has never said kids should be muzzled. But after the American Academy of Pediatrics backed universal school masking in new guidelines last week, Fauci said the CDC is "carefully looking" at encouraging universal masking in schools for everyone over two regardless of vaccination status. Fauci also said Sunday that the CDC is considering making new masking recommendations for vaccinated individuals and potentially urging booster shots for people with suppressed immune systems.
But back in Florida, anti-masker DeSantis has also touted the effectiveness of the vaccines.
“So here’s, I think, the most important thing with the data: if you are vaccinated—fully vaccinated—the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero,” DeSantis said at a press conference last week. “These vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.”
On a national level, health officials are continuing to do what they can to promote vaccination. Medical groups representing million of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care workers on Monday urged a vaccine requirement for all U.S. health officials, according to the Washington Post.
“We call for all health care and long-term care employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19,” the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and 55 other groups wrote in a joint statement. “The health and safety of U.S. workers, families, communities, and the nation depends on it.”
Leaders of the groups involved in the effort see health care workers as important message carriers to the broader communities they are serving.
Rachel Villanueva, an OB/GYN and president of the National Medical Association representing more than 50,000 Black physicians, told the Post that leading by example is essential since many communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
“We want to continue to dispel myths, educate, increase confidence and increase vaccination rates in our communities,” Villanueva said.