As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surged in Alabama, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., mentioned the state’s lowest-in-the-nation vaccination rate at a political fundraiser, eliciting cheers from the audience in a video posted this week.
Days after the video surfaced, the state’s health leader said officials have tossed out more than 65,000 coronavirus vaccines that expired, citing low demand that experts have partly attributed to the politicization of the vaccine. Alabama has the lowest vaccination rate in the country, followed closely by Mississippi, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
In the video from the Alabama Federation of Republican Women fundraiser July 23, Greene suggested people take up arms against volunteers promoting coronavirus vaccines through door-to-door outreach, to which the crowd applauded and laughed.
“Well, what they don’t know is that in the South we all love our Second Amendment rights,” she said in the clip shared Tuesday. “And we’re not real big on strangers showing up at our front door, are we? They might not like the welcome they get.”
Greene’s spokesman, Nick Dyer, denied that she suggested people shoot those promoting vaccines.
“Your colleagues in the fake news are making things up and attributing things to her that she did not say,” he wrote in an email.
He did not respond to a question about whether Greene is vaccinated. The member of Congress has previously denied answering whether she’s received a vaccine, saying such a question is “a violation of her HIPAA rights,” a misinterpretation of the law.
Alabama Health Officer Scott Harris said the state, which has tossed 65,511 doses, remained “susceptible” to the virus’s spread. He implored people to get their shots soon.
“That’s extremely unfortunate when we have such a low vaccination rate,” Harris said. “Of course, there are so many people in the world that still don’t have access to the vaccine, so that’s a shame.”
Alabama’s hospitals have seen an uptick in patients being treated for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, Harris said. Most are not vaccinated. He added that officials were prepared to install temporary coronavirus hospitals, reminiscent of last winter.
Harris said it was “tough to see” infections and hospitalizations rising again in his state. The seven-day average for new infections jumped Friday to its highest point since January, 3,304 cases, according to Post data. On Saturday, the state tallied 3,891 positive cases. On the same day, 2,090 people were treated for COVID-19 in Alabama hospitals.
“We wouldn’t see these kinds of numbers if more people were vaccinated,” Harris said.
The best approach to encourage people who are hesitant is by telling them to go to their doctor for guidance, he said, rather than belittling their reasoning.
“You don’t change people’s minds by yelling at them,” Harris said.
But frustrations in the state have mounted as the rest of the country creeps ahead in the effort to curb the virus with vaccines.
Last month, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, targeted the unvaccinated, saying she has run out of ideas for how to persuade them.
“It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks,” she said. “It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”
On Friday, Ivey trumpeted the recent upward trend in vaccinations, which she said came without a statewide or federal mandate. The immunized portion of the state, about one-third, has grown in recent weeks. In the past week, the state averaged 16,000 doses administered per day, a 36% increase over the week before.
“People did it simply because they care about themselves and their loved ones,” Ivey said. “Thank you to the people of Alabama for stepping up and getting a shot.”
Rachael Lee, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Medicine, said people who remain unvaccinated tend to have low-income jobs and say they don’t have the time or money to get their shot, or they are younger and say they won’t become symptomatic if they are infected. There’s also a correlation between counties with low vaccination rates and leaning Republican, she said.
“This is the hardest one for me, that it does appear there’s a partisan connection,” Lee told WAMU.
Nearly 60% of Republicans say they are unwilling to get vaccinated, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,517 U.S. adults released last month. Meanwhile, Republican leaders, including Greene, have opposed vaccine requirements, arguing in favor of individual choices.
“The messaging here in the United States has been consistently around how it’s a personal decision to get vaccinated, but pandemics by their definition are collective problems,” Lee said. “We have to think more about our actions protecting our loved ones and our communities.”