Fox News host Sean Hannity, who previously called COVID-19 a “hoax,” promoted the vaccine on his show this week. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) received the shot this week after saying months ago that he would be getting it “soon.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been urging Floridians to get vaccinated. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has repeatedly encouraged vaccinations in recent days.
But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) rejected the idea Thursday that Republicans have been speaking differently about vaccines.
“I don’t think we shifted in our tone,” he said, explaining that the rapid development of the vaccine has always been a top Republican achievement under former President Donald Trump.
And some other Republicans aren’t quite ready to ditch the doubt and skepticism they’ve sown in the public about the danger of the virus and the effectiveness of the vaccines.
House Republicans gathered for a news conference with doctors Thursday morning, which was billed as a push to get more Americans vaccinated and to discuss the new delta variant, which is more contagious and spreading rapidly around the country. But they spent most of their time blaming China for creating an “evil virus,” as Scalise put it, and criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for not doing enough to examine its origins.
“Why is she trying to do the work of the Chinese communist party in covering this up?” asked Scalise.
When the Republican lawmakers did talk about the need to get vaccinated, they framed it as a personal decision rather than an imperative in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
“We urge all Americans to talk to their doctors about the risks of COVID, talk to their doctors of the benefits of getting vaccinated and then come to a decision that’s right for them about the vaccine,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a doctor and co-chair of the House Republican Doctors Caucus. “If you are at risk, you should be getting this vaccine.”
“One of these days, if we’re not careful, we’re going to get a variant that isn’t something that we can handle with the vaccine we’ve already got.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone eligible for the vaccine get the shot as soon as possible, not just people who are at higher risk of illness.
Republicans have been far less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats, according to survey data. Polling also shows that doctors are the most trusted source of vaccine information and that unvaccinated adults put relatively more trust in doctors than in the government, which is likely why elected Republicans are telling people to talk to their doctors when they promote the vaccine.
Though Scalise attended the news conference that strayed from its advertised vaccine-boosting message, earlier this week he posed for a photo while finally getting his shot.
Scalise told HuffPost he hadn’t gotten vaccinated until now because he’d previously tested positive for antibodies ― meaning he thought he had some protection from COVID-19 from a mild or asymptomatic prior infection ― but with the new variant spreading, he decided to get vaccinated.
“I’ve talked to the hospital directors in my state, and over 98% of the people that are being admitted to hospitals right now for COVID are unvaccinated,” he said, “and I just felt this was the right time to get that extra level of protection and also thought it was important to publicly encourage people.”
“Ultimately it’s everybody’s choice and, you know, if they have questions, talk to their doctor, but at the same time it’s safe and effective and I’m glad I got it,” he added.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who got the shot as soon as he could earlier this year, said he didn’t think there was necessarily more enthusiasm for the vaccine within the House Republican conference because of the delta variant.
“If you weren’t scared of the original COVID, you shouldn’t be scared of the delta,” Hudson told HuffPost. “I think most of the outbreak we’re seeing is non-vaccinated people, but even among the non-vaccinated, the hospitalization and death rates are extremely low.”
Hudson added: “I do see, from the left, kind of a growing hysteria about the variant, which is concerning.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) also said he didn’t think there’s been any increase in pro-vaccine sentiment among Republicans, though he said he had gotten his shot immediately.
“It’s no change. I’m still thrilled,” he said. “It’s the success of Mike Pence and Operation Warp Speed.”
Even if most Republicans aren’t publicly admitting that there’s a shift, the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus seems to have people nervous, according to GOP strategists. The stock market recently tumbled amid concerns about the virus’s resurgent spread, and there are fears of returning to the lockdowns and restrictions of the past year.
Cases are also on the rise in unvaccinated areas ― including many districts represented by Republicans in Congress. That reality may be prompting some lawmakers to push vaccinations with more urgency.
For example, in Plaquemines Parish in Scalise’s district, there has been a 929% increase in COVID-19 cases over a recent 14-day stretch and a 57% jump in hospitalizations.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said there indeed had been a shift.
“Seems to me both Republican elected officials and some conservative news people are talking about having vaccines that weren’t a couple of weeks ago,” Blunt told reporters.
Blunt suggested the rise of the delta variant could explain the rhetorical change and noted the available vaccines work well against the newer strain of the virus.
“One of these days, if we’re not careful,” he said, “we’re going to get a variant that isn’t something that we can handle with the vaccine we’ve already got.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Richard Hudson as from New York rather than North Carolina. It also referred to Mitch McConnell as the Senate majority leader; he is minority leader.