After Sherri Tenpenny, a Cleveland-area doctor, falsely suggested during a hearing last month in the Ohio House of Representatives that COVID vaccines left people “magnetized” and could “interface” with 5G cellular towers, Republican lawmakers thanked her for her “enlightening” testimony.
In Congress, Republicans who once praised the Trump administration for its work facilitating the swift development of the vaccines now wage campaigns of vaccine misinformation, sowing doubts about safety and effectiveness from the Capitol.
And this past week, Republican state lawmakers in Tennessee successfully pressured health officials to stop outreach to children for all vaccines. The guidance prohibits sending reminders about the second dose of a COVID vaccine to adolescents who had received one shot and communicating about routine inoculations, like the flu shot.
A wave of opposition to COVID vaccines has risen within the Republican Party as conservative news outlets produce a steady diet of misinformation about vaccines and some GOP lawmakers invite anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists to testify in statehouses and Congress. With very little resistance from party leaders, these Republican efforts have elevated falsehoods and doubts about vaccinations from the fringes of American life to the center of our political conversation.
It is a pattern that was seen throughout the Trump administration: Rather than rebuke conspiratorial thinking and inaccuracies when they begin spreading among their party’s base, many Republicans tolerate extremist misinformation.
Some conservatives promulgate the falsehoods as a way to rally their political base, embracing ideas like a stolen election, rampant voter fraud and revisionist history about the deadly siege at the Capitol. Many others say very little at all, preferring to dodge questions from the news media.
Those who do speak up remain reluctant to specifically name colleagues who have given voice to misinformation or to call out media personalities who have done so, like Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
“We don’t control conservative media figures so far as I know — at least, I don’t,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told The New York Times recently. “That being said, I think it’s an enormous error for anyone to suggest that we shouldn’t be taking vaccines.”
Anti-vaccination sentiment is not new to Republican voters. During the 2016 Republican presidential primary race, a number of candidates, including Donald Trump, repeated debunked theories that vaccines caused autism in children. Around that time, Republican state legislators began opposing laws that would tighten vaccine requirements for children.
But over the past few months, the shift within the party has accelerated as some Trump supporters embrace the belief that the national effort to promote COVID vaccinations is harmful, unconstitutional or perhaps even a sign of a nefarious government plot.
“Think about what those mechanisms could be used for,” Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., said of the Biden administration’s plan to go door to door to reach millions of unvaccinated Americans, going on to claim, without evidence, “They could then go door to door to take your guns. They could go door to door to take your Bibles.”
In a report this month, the Kaiser Family Foundation found a growing vaccination divide between Republican and Democratic areas, with nearly 47% of people in counties won by President Joe Biden fully vaccinated, compared with 35% of people in Trump counties. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 47% of Republicans said they were not likely to get vaccinated, compared with just 6% of Democrats.
As COVID cases across the country rise, nearly all recent hospitalizations and deaths have occurred among unvaccinated people, White House officials have said. While the national outlook remains much better than during previous upticks, Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, this past week issued his first advisory of the Biden administration, warning of the “urgent threat” of health misinformation.
There is a tendency among Republican leaders to quietly — and sometimes not-so-quietly — attribute the support for fringe beliefs and figures to Trump. But when it comes to vaccinations, it is difficult to pin the blame on the former president.
Trump has eagerly taken credit for the accelerated development process of the vaccines and has urged Americans to get vaccinated. (He did, however, quietly receive a vaccine in private before he left office, rather than hold a public event for the shot that might have encouraged his supporters to follow his lead.) In an interview with Fox News last month, the former president expressed some concern about vaccinating “very young people” but said he remained a “big believer in what we did with the vaccine.”
“it’s incredible what we did,” he said. “You see the results.”
Other Republicans have not remained quite as steadfast in their echoing of Trump’s message on vaccines. Last year, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., praised Trump’s “brilliant” Operation Warp Speed. This year, he has made a number of dubious claims about adverse reactions and deaths linked to the vaccines.
In March, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., praised Trump for saving lives with the vaccines. This month, she urged Americans to “just say no” to the vaccine, using Nazi-era imagery to criticize the Biden administration’s effort to reach unvaccinated people.
“People have a choice, they don’t need your medical brown shirts showing up at their door ordering vaccinations,” she tweeted. “You can’t force people to be part of the human experiment.”
Less than a week later, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, encouraged Americans to get vaccinated, citing his experience as a childhood survivor of polio.
“We have not one, not two, but three highly effective vaccines, so I’m perplexed by the difficulty we have finishing the job,” he said.
Yet when asked by a reporter whether some of the challenge could stem from the words of members of his own party, McConnell demurred.
“I’ve already answered the question about how I feel about this,” he said. “I can only speak for myself, and I just did a few minutes ago.”