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The political fight over vaccine mandates deepens despite their effectiveness

Demonstrators gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston to protest COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates. The political divide on the issue is only deepening, as Republican leaders of other states take more steps to thwart mandates.
Joseph Prezioso
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston to protest COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates. The political divide on the issue is only deepening, as Republican leaders of other states take more steps to thwart mandates.

The science is clear: Vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death from the coronavirus, and vaccine mandates are an effective tool in promoting widespread vaccinations.

Still, the battle to inoculate the nation against the coronavirus has reached a fever pitch in recent months. President Biden has focused on getting as many Americans as possible vaccinated against the coronavirus, most notably rolling out wide-reaching vaccine mandates for government employees and for businesses with more than 100 workers.

But Republicans have grown increasingly hostile to the notion of mandatory vaccines — despite vaccine mandates existing in the background in parts of the United States since the 19th century — and have parlayed the fight against COVID-19 into a political battle, with vaccine mandates as the latest frontier in the great American defense of freedom and liberty.

These lawmakers decry the Biden administration's actions as government overreach, but now themselves are telling employers they can't impose mandates even if they want to.

Take for example Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, who earlier this week issued an executive order banning mandatory vaccines within private companies.

"No entity in Texas can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual, including an employee or a consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19," Abbott wrote in his order.

The order notes that vaccines are "encouraged" for those who are eligible but should remain "voluntary." Abbott is himself fully vaccinated against the virus and survived a brush with COVID-19 this summer.

Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — also vaccinated against the virus — has vowed to sue the Biden administration over its federal vaccine mandates. So far, he has made good on his promise to keep such orders out of Florida, having previously fined a county in the state $3.5 million for imposing vaccine mandates on its employees.

"We're going to make sure people are able to make their own choices. We're not going to discriminate against people based on those choices, and you're going to have a right to operate in society," DeSantis said, painting the issue of vaccines as a matter of civil liberties.

A uniquely American predicament

Most Americans have in fact received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

A September Pew Research study found that in August, 73% of American adults said they had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and a majority said they had received the full course of the vaccine.

Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, 86% said they were at least partially vaccinated against the virus, compared to 60% of Republicans. Unvaccinated Americans also tend to be younger than 50 and less educated.

For some of those who have not been vaccinated, the message from conservative leaders like Abbott and DeSantis about choice and liberty resonates, despite public health guidance on how to prevent serious illness and death from the coronavirus.

"Somehow it has morphed into not getting the vaccine as a way to defend their freedom and resist this 'tyranny,' " said Ken Resnicow, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Michigan. "There's not many countries that have this dynamic."

Resnicow referenced a study on which he was the lead author that found a correlation between a person's belief in conspiracy theories and the apocalypse, and their willingness to actively prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Particularly among self-identified evangelicals, Resnicow has found a distinct rejection of the coronavirus vaccine, which he said has made vaccine hesitancy especially difficult to address.

"There's a sensitive issue — that it's conflated with religion and evangelicalism, and people are scared to touch that third rail. And I think we have to confront how religion and science are now at loggerheads, and that wasn't always the case," he said.

"There's this 30% of evangelicals for whom science is almost the enemy."

Rupali Limaye, director of behavioral and implementation science at the International Vaccine Access Center based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has made similar findings as it relates to the difficulty of squaring public health realities with differences in political opinions.

"There is a really stark divide between states that have more heavily Democratic-leaning leadership versus those that have more heavily leaning Republican leadership," she said.

Limaye said that particularly among Republicans, the idea of freedom — a core tenet of the American ideal — has given people a basis on which to pin anti-science rhetoric.

"This idea of liberty and autonomy — this comes up a lot as those underlying values of individuals that feel as though we don't really need to be mandating vaccines," she said,

"I don't think it's an issue that they hate vaccines themselves. They hate the idea that vaccines are essentially forcing them into doing something they don't want to do. Vaccines are just sort of the casualty of all this."

The political split in polling

Niambi Carter, an associate professor of political science and Woodrow Wilson fellow at Howard University, said that Republican politicians have been exploiting the political expediency of vaccine hesitancy to advance their own political goals, an argument the White House has made as well.

"Unfortunately we have politicians who will participate in this kind of nonsense because it serves them politically, not necessarily because they believe it," Carter said, referencing the lawmakers' own vaccination status. "They're telling us to gamble our lives, but they're not willing to take that same gamble with theirs. And I think that is what is the most galling about this."

Opposition to vaccine mandates may even be growing among Republicans.

While Americans overall are generally favorable of Biden's new vaccine mandates for federal workers, Republicans specifically are not.

Polling by the British market research firm YouGov published on Oct. 13 shows that fewer than half of Republicans — just 46% — support mandatory vaccines for children. That's a 13-percentage-point decline since August 2020, before the current fight over the coronavirus vaccine erupted.

And when asked about the COVID-19 vaccine specifically, the difference is even more clear. An overwhelming majority of Democrats, 79%, are in favor of mandatory childhood vaccines against the virus and just 9% are opposed. This compared to just a quarter of Republicans who would support such a mandate, versus 63% who oppose it.

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Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.