Former President Trump was booed at a rally on Saturday after he encouraged his supporters to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The offending remarks were mild.
“I believe totally in your freedoms, I do…but I recommend: take the vaccines,” Trump said in Alabama, adding that the shots were “good.” Heckles immediately broke out.
The moment was a remarkable one, given the ferocious loyalty of the former president’s base.
Supporters who, as Trump famously noted, would vote for him even if he shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue, apparently found his endorsement of COVID-19 vaccinations a bridge too far.
The crowd’s reaction was also a microcosm of the enormous difficulty public health officials face in the ongoing effort to reach the roughly 85 million eligible Americans who remain unvaccinated even as the delta variant rages.
“Political polarization – the idea that science either is valid or isn’t, or the vilification of figures like Anthony Fauci – has its cost,” said Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “And that cost is the shadow of the pandemic.”
The United States is experiencing around 150,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day. Those levels of infection have not been seen since the pandemic’s winter peak, from November 2020 to the end of January 2021.
The surge in infections is, in turn, delaying a return to normal life, threatening the economic recovery, adding to the stresses of parents and children as the new school year begins – and potentially creating political problems for President Biden, even as he encourages Americans to get vaccinated at every opportunity.
The danger for the president is that he ends up being blamed by some voters – fairly or otherwise – if the promising start he made on the COVID-19 response peters out amid new strains of the virus.
“It is certainly a potential problem, because the battle against COVID is one of the major ways he is going to be evaluated,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
But Biden isn’t the only politician at risk.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have emerged as chief foes of Biden on the issue, opposing mask and vaccine mandates. Both governors have held fast to those positions even as COVID-19 cases have risen rapidly in their states – and as Biden has urged them and others with similar positions to “get out of the way.” Abbott himself recently contracted the virus even though he has been fully vaccinated.
The battle entered a new phase Monday when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave full approval to Pfizer’s vaccine.
The decision was a catalyst for a new raft of vaccine requirements. The Pentagon will mandate vaccines for the military’s approximately 1.4 million active members. New York City has announced that all teachers and employees in its public school system – the nation’s largest – will also be required to get vaccinated.
The FDA’s move sparked some predictable comments from other quarters. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), in keeping with her penchant for courting controversy, called the decision “questionable” at a news conference, according to one reporter. “I wonder was it Joe Biden himself making that call?”
The rate of vaccinations has ticked up recently. The latest figures indicate that around 900,000 shots per day are being administered. But that is still only about one-third as many vaccinations as were happening in the spring.
Still, public health experts like Sehgal point to the recent rise as evidence that not all is doom and gloom. He ascribed the increase in vaccinations not just to concern over the delta variant but also to the effectiveness of some public health messaging.
“You can broadly divide society into three groups – people who were very enthusiastic about being vaccinated and have been; people who are very opposed to being vaccinated; and then the middle group that is convincible. The convincible group is being convinced.”
The process of convincing comes with both carrots and sticks. Some states have offered inducements to get vaccinated. Back in May, Biden supported a program from Uber and Lyft to give free rides to vaccination sites.
On Monday, after the FDA decision, Biden encouraged companies to tighten their vaccine requirements.
“Today I’m calling on more companies in the private sector to step up with vaccine requirements that will reach millions more people,” Biden said. “If you’re a business leader, a nonprofit leader, a state or local leader who has been waiting for full FDA approval to require vaccinations, I call on you now to do that.”
But that, in turn, is sure to elicit a pushback from the libertarian right, complaining about an infringement of individual rights.
The bottom line is the virus isn’t going anywhere. And neither is the political polarization that has fueled its spread.
“The whole situation shows just how powerful the polarization is,” said Reeher. “You would think that if anything were able to dislodge it, it would be something that involves health, and life and death, directly. And even that doesn’t seem able to dislodge it.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.