The Right Wing War on Vaccines

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S1: Hey, what next, listeners, this is Mary Harris. Before we start the episode today, I just wanted to give a shout out to our newest listeners. There have been a bunch of you over the last couple of weeks. If you like what you’re hearing, please consider subscribing to us. If you don’t already, just go over to what next on whatever app you’re listening on. You can leave us a review, too. We love that. And I like hearing feedback from you guys, too. So what are we doing? Well, what could we be doing better? What stories would you like to hear us cover? Email me at what next at Slate Dotcom. OK, onto the show.

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S2: Thank you. A reminder, again, as I announced before we started, there is a sign up sheet for the public. It will be by the

S1: the best place to start. The story of what happened to Dr. Michel Fiscus is with the hearing into our agenda.

S2: First on our agenda is a presentation from the Department of Health. Please come forward.

S1: This is last month in Nashville, Tennessee, the state capital, Dr. Fiscus isn’t actually here, but her boss is the head of the Department of Public Health.

S3: Good afternoon, chairman and members. Thank you for having me.

S1: I’m Dr. Fiscus. His boss is here to talk about Dr. Fiscus, specifically this letter Dr. Fiscus sent out telling health providers who offer covid vaccines that they are legally allowed to give shots to some minors without their parents consent. Republican lawmakers were not thrilled with this legal interpretation, but the commissioner of the Department of Health, she tries to explain why this rule and this letter are really not a big deal. She explains how she had her staff tracked down each and every kid who took advantage of this allowance at state vaccination sites.

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S3: And out of all of the sites, all 89 rural health departments, they came up with less than 10 kids that had presented on a company. Five of them were there for services, some other kind of service. They were there unaccompanied. The other three were my own children who I sent unaccompanied to get their second dose because they’re 16 and their mom works. And so they got the other three. So we can come up with eight kids statewide that have presented at health departments unaccompanied.

S1: This information did not matter. It was as if this bit of political theater was preordained to play out in a very precise way. And within a few weeks, Dr. Michel Fiscus got fired.

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S4: Oh, my goodness. It’s just it’s just been crazy. The whole thing’s been crazy here.

S1: A couple of things to know about Dr. Fiscus. She’s a pediatrician. She’s not a Democrat. She says she’s a registered independent and she’s angry about all this went down.

S4: And to be hamstrung by an administration that, you know, for whatever reason has decided that it’s going to choose politics first is I run out of adjectives for for what it is. It’s I think mostly it’s demoralizing.

S1: Dr. Fiscus, his title was medical director for Vaccine Preventable Diseases and Immunization Programs, so this year was really busy for her. Her professional support system consisted of these Zoome calls with other public health workers from all around the country, 64 of them altogether. Every now and then she had joined one of these meetings and expressed frustration with the way the state politicians were stymieing her work, dictating what she could say, even which vaccines she could distribute.

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S4: And most of the time, there’s just silence on these calls, because I really do think that so much of what happens here is is just an enigma. But then there will be southern states that will pipe up mostly southern states and say, yeah, we’re dealing with some of the same kinds of issues that, you know, the lack of a mask mandate, the lack of messaging that people need to stay home,

S1: having to fight so hard to protect the public, even to get them accurate information. It had consequences,

S4: as far as I know, on the 25th of the 64 to either resign or retire or be ousted during the course of the pandemic. The two main things that I’m most concerned about are, one, that that if. They continue to wipe their boots on public health. We’re not going to have public health in Tennessee, not because it’s been dismantled by members of the legislature, but because the professionals that are trained to do this work that know how to mitigate disease, spread and promote public health, are just finally going to give up. And then the second is that we are primed to be overrun with the Delta variant.

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S1: Today on the show, how vaccine hesitancy curdled into vaccine hostility and how that’s impacting the national campaign to get shots in arms. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. As she said, Dr. Michel Fiscus is not the only public health official to get burned by conservative messaging on vaccines and masks and social distancing, Diane Dimond or The Washington Post has been reporting on these dynamics for months, especially when it comes to covid vaccines. Back in March, she came on the show to talk about vaccine resistance among Republican voters. Many of the people he spoke with back then were skeptical of shots, but they still feared getting sick. He characterizes what’s happened since as a kind of hardening of public opinion. He first started recognizing it while listening to conservative commentator Meghan Kelly’s podcast,

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S2: Megan Kelly, who now hosts a popular podcast. And I think she’s getting a Sirius XM deal soon. She several months ago told a story on her podcast about hunting for a vaccine in New York City. And it went on for several minutes. And the takeaway was, this is important. I got vaccinated. My husband got vaccinated, she said later in the episode and she said on other episodes she’s told people about the value of getting vaccinated. That was a couple of months ago that I’m provosts.

S4: I was going to get the vaccine all along and I never really wavered in that. And my my doctor has been very pro vaccine and I trust him.

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S2: So that’s my decision. But in recent weeks, when she talks about the vaccine on her program, it is increasingly in tones of skepticism. She really doesn’t want her kids getting vaccinated. So she’s spoken up about mandates potentially in schools. She’s talked about risks of the vaccine that are not proven and if anything, have been disproven. So her tone has shifted from a moment a few months ago when I remember listening to it and thinking, man, maybe I should write a story about the conservatives who are urging their followers and listeners to get vaccinated to someone who is now when she talks about the vaccine, it’s hardly in a tone of universal praise. If anything, it’s peppering doubts in among the vaccination talk.

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S1: This shift from hesitancy to full blown culture war issue was on full display last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC. At this year’s summer meeting, outright vaccine hostility became an applause line for the likes of Lauren Bobert, the far right Republican congresswoman from Colorado. We’re here to tell

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S3: governments we don’t want your benefits. We don’t want your welfare. Don’t come knocking on my door with your bowtie out, you leave us the hell alone.

S2: There has been an unfortunate band of usual suspects, whether it’s Margaritaville or Green or Madison, Cawthorn, these these newer congressmen and women on the right who have cloaked themselves in Trump’s shadow, and they have gone after Biden in new and aggressive ways. They see political gain in this. They can get headlines. They can annoy the right people.

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S1: I own the Libs

S2: a little bit. And there is an entire generation of older Republicans who identify very closely with the health care industry. The health care industry has donated quite a bit to longtime Republicans, especially the drug industry. There are Republicans who have spent billions of dollars in congressional funding after 9/11 into emergency response. So there’s there’s this strata of Republicans who care very deeply about vaccination, but some of them are biting their tongues because they’re they’re sensing that their base may be going a different direction.

S1: I’m struck by the similarities between what’s happening now in terms of vaccine hesitancy and misinformation and what happened in November when it came to election misinformation, because we’re seeing these kind of individual government workers taking the heat for carrying out straightforward public health campaigns, the way Dr. Fiscus got caught so much heat and eventually was terminated for what she was doing in Tennessee. That reminds me a lot of election workers who ended up bearing the brunt of all of the complaints that somehow the election was unfair. But then there’s also something else, which is the fact that so much misinformation about vaccines is coming from just a very few very loud places, like One America News Network or Facebook, where, you know, over the last few days we’ve heard a lot about how just 12 people are spreading the vast amount of misinformation about vaccines that’s going around, you know, the Internet. I wonder what you think about that similarity and if you see it, too.

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S2: I completely see it. I think it’s an absolutely accurate comparison. There was a piece by Zach Amontillado at Politico who looked at election issues and all the election workers who had tried to protect the election results last year, who’ve now become targets of conspiracy mongers. And some of these election workers have said, forget it, I’m getting out of this line of work. It’s not worth it to me. And it reminded me so much of what is happening in public health, whether it’s public health officials being fired by by lawmakers who oppose what they’re trying to do or folks on the ground harassing those public health officials. It is a very similar playbook. And just like there’s a connection between some of the people questioning the election and questioning the coronavirus response, I think so much of this rests on Donald Trump, not just what he’s doing, but the lawmakers trying to court his support. There’s a congressman from Missouri, a guy named Jason Smith. He’s been in the House of Representatives about eight years. He made news this past weekend by alleging on Twitter that Joe Biden’s coronaviruses response team was going to go door to door like the KGB and knock down doors and force people to get vaccinated. I mean, not only is this. Yeah, I mean, it’s not true. He probably knows it’s not true. But this congressman is making this claim at the same time that his district in Missouri is experiencing severe covid uptick at a moment when most of his population is not vaccinated below national averages. And Jason Smith, who is making this claim about coronavirus, has his eye on higher office. He’s likely going to run for Senate. He recently met with Donald Trump, trying to potentially get his endorsement. So these are lawmakers who see political gain in questioning the coronavirus response and Mary. I just don’t think we saw this back in January. Twenty twenty one or even March or April. Twenty twenty one. But the longer that President Biden owns the response, the more these lawmakers are seeing an opportunity to distance themselves from what the government is doing, even if it means running down the public health benefit for the people that purportedly represent.

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S1: Well, as we speak, the Delta variant is spreading around the country, scaring a lot of public health experts who are calling it a crisis of the unvaccinated. Is there any evidence that this surge in infections is impacting how people feel about the vaccines?

S2: I think it’s too early to know that for sure. It certainly is raising questions. I know at the Post we’re thinking about what does this mean for people who are vaccinated? There are increasing reports of breakthrough cases. Now, you could expect that in a world where one hundred and fifty million plus people have been vaccinated, the more that the Delta variant spreads, the more likely it is that there are going to be breakthrough cases as a result. But the fear from the White House is that we are getting into a moment when the Delta variant is going to spread really quickly and there are still 100 million plus people who haven’t been vaccinated at all. That’s a lot of people who could be at risk of serious complications if covid barrels through them. And we’re also in a season when we can do a lot of things outside during the summertime, where are we going to be in the fall into the winter if schools have come back? We’re doing more things inside. Perhaps the flu is resurgent and covid to how do we untangle all of these factors that we didn’t necessarily have to deal with last year when so much of the country was shut down.

S1: When we come back, is there anything the Biden administration can do to turn this tide? The question Dan Diamond keeps asking these days is how the Biden administration is going to work this balancing act. After all, the spread of the Delta variant may be a pandemic of the unvaccinated, but Biden is president of both the people who got shots and the people who didn’t.

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S2: About two weeks ago, President Biden threw a party on July 4th celebrating all the progress against the vaccine. And leading up to that, we were asked the White House, how do you make sure this isn’t a George Bush mission accomplished moment? How do you make sure that we are actually at a place where we can be celebrating the nation’s progress on the vaccine and fighting coronavirus? The Biden administration has a story it wants to tell that they came into office. They corrected the vaccine effort that one hundred and fifty million plus Americans have gotten protected, that the covid cases have plunged, which is true. All is true. So there is a degree of political calculation involved with the next public health steps.

S1: We were talking about the similarities between what’s happening now and the back and forth over the election and and how the information networks were so damaged. The other thing that strikes me is how it seems like the same players are using the same playbook this time around. But it doesn’t feel like the Biden administration has learned anything from what happened last time

S2: with the White House has done again and again is walk up to a line but refuse to cross. This White House is very worried that the more that they are perceived to do, the more it will only spark political resistance. It is a difficult line to walk in this country that is so politicized and so divided even before coronavirus. I also think Mary three months ago I wrote a story about takeaways from Republican focus groups and holdouts who didn’t want the vaccine. And the opening lines of the story were something to the effect of stop using Tony Fauci to sell us the vaccine. Don’t talk about booster shots, various trigger points that were strengthening these holdouts. Their commitment to not getting vaccinated. They didn’t believe say that Tony Fauci was an effective messenger for them, not potentially, because if anything, Tony Fauci actually did. But he had been civilianized at that point. And yet here we are three months later, and the White House is still pursuing a lot of the same tactics that they’ve had since coming into office. So the White House has yet to figure out how to thread all these tricky needles

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S1: because different parts of the country are having different reactions to this new variant. Dansky is an information mismatch emerging, a mismatch that is not dissimilar to the kind of confusion many people felt a year ago under President Trump.

S2: You know, I talked to a woman named Kavita Patel. She worked in the Obama administration. She’s a physician. She’s now at Brookings. And she pointed out that during the Trump era, there were messages that were constantly misaligned, whether it was the CDC wanting to say something in the White House coming out and saying something totally different, or Trump himself coming up with some public health message that didn’t match with the facts on, say, hydroxyl, chloroquine or masks or what have you. And we are now in a moment where increasingly local governments may be pushing mask mandates like we see in Los Angeles County or other counties where they’re encouraging the wearing of masks again. And the CDC, meanwhile, has drawn a line. We don’t need masks if we’re vaccinated. It’s creating messaging mismatches. And that’s where these weather conspiracy theories or just simple doubts can spring up because Americans don’t necessarily know what they should be listening to. They have to go out and figure it out for themselves. And that’s not a place where we want to be, especially at this point in the pandemic.

S1: Who do you blame for that? Do you think this is inevitable or do you think that the White House should be coordinating more with local governments,

S2: all of the above? I mean, I think there’s an element of human error. No matter who’s in the White House, Trump, Biden, people are going to be exhausted and tired at this point. Responding to the pandemic, there’s almost a bit of reaction to what happened last year. The White House, the Trump administration was accused of meddling in the public health response. I should know, because I wrote a lot of stories about interference in what career government experts were trying to do last year. So this White House has gone very much the other way. They don’t want to step on the CDC when the CDC comes out with a recommendation on masking. That makes it that much harder, though, to align the message. If the White House is being just as surprised as people around the country as to what CDC is coming up with. So I think there’s a happy medium that we haven’t been able to reach.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, when I think about how other countries are dealing with covid at the moment, I think a lot about France because. They took this step that. Wasn’t quite mandating a vaccine, but the president basically came out and said, listen, you know, at private businesses, you’re going to be required to have a health passport, which either has a negative covid test from a certain amount of time before you show it or proof of vaccination. And that’s how you’re going to get in to go to a restaurant, to go to a show, to go to a shopping mall. And it it changed the game there. All of a sudden they’re their Web sites were crashing because so many people were trying to get vaccinated. And it just made me realize, like, I know it’s a different political environment there, but you can do things to change the game rather than just fiddling at the margins. And that’s not quite a mandate because it’s also saying you could have a negative covid test. So I just wonder if anyone, you know, you have your deeply sourced in the White House and other places is considering any of these other measures that aren’t quite mandates but still could change the game.

S2: The idea that we would have a pass in the states, kind of like what they’ve done in France that was kicked around a few months ago. The White House got a barrage of criticism, including from some some Democrats has decided as of now not to aggressively move forward. The White House wasn’t even going to issue its own pass. It was more about setting standards for businesses that might want to do it. The move in France did rapidly increase vaccinations. It also rapidly increased anti vaccine rhetoric and action. There have been protests in France since that move. There, I believe, was a vaccination center that was burned. And in a case of arson, it triggered both a positive response as well as a negative one. And I think that’s what the White House is worried about replicating here, where, yes, maybe there will be those holdouts. And if you look at the percentage of Americans who say they’re not planning to get a shot at something still around three in 10, no immediate plans, some of them are can vincible, whether a long conversation or if they said, you know, if I’m required to do it, I’ll do it. But there are plenty who have dug in their heels. And I think the White House is really worried about amplifying that by by a trigger point, whether it is getting close to this line of requiring shots to get into places or some other measure that would be perceived as a federal overreach. The White House may yet do something like this. I don’t think Mary in the middle of July based on where cases are right now, that this is something on the table for the near term.

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S1: I wonder if you’ve had a chance to follow up with any of the conservative voters you spoke with a few months back, the ones were hesitant to get vaccinated, but not so much angry because I have this question in my head, which is, are we watching a real shift take place and how people feel or have we just turned our attention to new people? And I wonder if the people that you spoke to initially have hardened their opinions or whether. They’re still where they were.

S2: They’re all over the map. Some of the folks that we we spoke to and some that I watched in the focus group did end up getting vaccinated. They were won over by the arguments of public health or having longer conversations with their doctors. There was one woman I talked to who was motivated, she said, by Yankee Stadium requiring proof of vaccinations or she and her husband got the shot. Clearly, there are people who have changed their minds. At the same time, there’s a lot of evidence that people who believed a certain thing about the vaccine earlier this year still believe it. The Kaiser Family Foundation just had a poll out looking at people who staked out an opinion on the vaccine back in January. Where were they six months later? Overwhelmingly, the people who said they wanted to get a shot got a shot. People who didn’t want to get a shot, many of them still had yet to do it.

S1: You did follow up with one person in particular who fascinated me, this Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, who had very personal reasons for wanting folks to get vaccinated, had had a stroke and he felt that he was medically compromised. And he arranged these focus groups where. You know, Chris Christie showed up and tried to convince people to get vaccinated, and he did convince some people, but what he told you now is that we always ask what will be the last straw? What will be the moment that we lose the ability to communicate and cooperate and get things done? And, well, we’ve reached it. And I thought, wow, that’s that’s quite dark.

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S2: No, it was dark and depressing and. He’s he’s a messaging guru and a pollster, so I I take a little of what he says with a grain of salt. I mean, he he knows the quotes that a Washington Post reporter might pick up on, but he’s not wrong that there are people who are entrenched. And this has been happening for months.

S1: The folks who when part of what I felt when I read that was anger. I mean, Frank Luntz is a Republican messaging guy. He’s the kind of guy who kind of showed folks how to do these tricks. Those tricks are being used in a way that he doesn’t like a whole lot. But it’s kind of the same tricks.

S2: It’s kind of Pandora’s box. Right. In the case of Frank Luntz, he’s been a fascinating figure for me all year. I had never dealt with him before this public health crisis. And he has come to be someone that this White House, the Biden White House has relied on and has told me repeatedly, Biden officials have said we know his track record, but for us, he’s been really good. This is bringing I mean, talk about odd bedfellows. This is bringing Luntz, who helped a message against the Affordable Care Act, together with a bunch of people who oversaw the Affordable Care Act. It says to me, Mary, that we are in a serious enough public health crisis, that these long running fights, it doesn’t matter right now. What matters is getting people the protection they need in the face of a pandemic that’s sweeping the world and is going to come back and bite the US. And the more that we can be ready for the next surge, if that means teaming up with Biden and Frank Luntz and Mitch McConnell and Democrats, this is more than politics. And it’s really sad to me when it becomes about politics.

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S1: Diane Dimond, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Mary, thanks for having me back. I wish I had better news.

S1: Diane Dimond is the national health reporter at The Washington Post, and that is our show, What Next is produced by Elaina Schwartz, Davis Land, Carmel Delshad, Mary Wilson and Danielle Hewitt. Special thanks to Davis today for interviewing Dr. Michel Fiscus. We are helped every day by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go find me on Twitter and that Mary’s Desk. Meantime, I’ll catch you back in this feed tomorrow.