As with masks, experts say that for the new Covid-19 vaccines to control the spread of the disease, a lot of people have to use them. That raises an obvious question: Will what happened to masks happen to the vaccine – will they become became a political symbol instead of a public health tool?
For some, the answer already is yes.
“There’s a lot of sincere people that are doing their best to put out a vaccine, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to take it,” says Greg Locke, pastor of Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. “I don’t believe the government can tell me when or how I can stick a needle in my arm or my kids’ arms. It’s super government overreach.”
Inside an outdoor tent – which he says he’s using not to limit the spread of Covid, but because the church building can’t hold all the new people coming – Locke folded his political takes into a sermon about how Christians should not be cowed by public criticism.
“Fear over faith. I’m not scared of some fake pandemic,” he said, to a standing ovation. He often records Facebook videos with political views in a Walmart parking lot. “And I don’t wear a mask when I go in either!” The crowd cheered. And by the way, “Donald Trump won the election by a landslide, and will be elected the president of the United States!”
Mt. Juliet is in Wilson County, to the east of Nashville. And like other more rural areas across the country, it’s seeing a surge in coronavirus cases.
Over the last 14 days – through Wednesday – the county recorded an average 127.6 new cases reported per day. For the 14 days prior, the average daily number was 95.6, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
Wilson County voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the 2020 election. A Pew Research Center survey over the summer found that Republicans are less likely to see coronavirus as a major threat to public health.
“There’s nobody in those rural counties who doesn’t know someone who has acquired Covid been hospitalized. And many people know someone who’s died of Covid. But they still, interestingly enough, are not all that concerned,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“They’re not likely to wear masks. It’s very attitudinal. And it will not be easy to change those attitudes, it will be like turning the proverbial ocean liner – it takes persistence, and it will happen slowly.”
Locke does not deny the existence of Covid-19, but he does reject the World Health Organization’s designation of it as a pandemic, which happened in March. “I’m saying the sickness is real. I’m saying the pandemic is not,” Locke said. Asked what he meant when he said the pandemic was not real, Locke said, “Pandemic is not real.” Asked what he thought a pandemic was, he said, “Not covid-19.”
As CNN continued to ask this question, Locke’s publicist interjected, saying “I think we’re stuck on the pandemic question.” Asked why he couldn’t answer the question, Locke said, “I did. There’s no pandemic. Covid. 19. Is. Not. A. Pan. Dem. Ic.”
Asked once again what a pandemic is, Locke said, “Not what we’re experiencing. I’m 44 years old, we’ve not had one in my lifetime. So I don’t know. And this is not it.”
A couple attendees of Locke’s service told CNN they’d seen him on Facebook recently and come to check him out. Some were skeptical of the vaccine.
Lisa Borchers said she’d started coming to Locke’s church in September, because she was looking for a preacher with a strong message like his.
“It has not been tested enough,” she said of the vaccine. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with it later on. It may help you now but in the future it could cause more harm to your body if you get it again.”
So how widespread is Locke’s view? Based on interviews and recent surveys, Locke appears to represent a vocal minority.
Support for vaccinations has grown nationally
A recent survey by Pew Research Center found increasing acceptance of the Covid vaccine nationwide. Sixty percent of Americans now say they’d get the vaccine, and nearly half of those who are reluctant say it’s possible they’d get it after others do so.
At the Wilson County Fair Grounds, farther east into Wilson County, there’s a free Covid testing site. CNN ran into Quintin Smith, director of the agricultural center there.
“I bet you’ve never met someone who’s as proud of their fairground bathrooms as I am,” Smith said, showing off a woman’s restroom painted with sunflowers. He said he’s taken care to maintain good sanitation on the site during the pandemic.
Smith said he knows many people who got coronavirus, but none in his own family. He’s had his 87-year-old mother “on lockdown since March.”
As for the new vaccines, he had some reservations.
“We give shots to cows all the time,” Smith said. He’s well aware Covid-19 is different from what he’d immunized cows from in the past. But he couldn’t help but think about times when the vaccinations had gone wrong. “I’ve shot thousands of cows, and you do get reactions to shots. We’ll give a shot to an animal, and it’ll walk out there 20 feet out of the chute and drop dead.”
“I think everybody’s excited about there being a vaccine,” Smith said, “but I think it’s going to be, kind of, everybody waiting around and watching the first responders and the nursing home folks and [to see] if there’s any reaction to it.”
Health officials say they have to build public trust
Vaccines are “a telltale sign of how the public feels about the government – the trust in government, not just trust in science, but trusting government services more broadly, as well as, their sense of obligation to each other,” explained Katie Cahill, a public health professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
She has been working with the state of Tennessee to track public sentiment about Covid.
“Vaccination has always been closely tied to power,” Cahill said, explaining that by the mid-1800s, states were already passing laws to require vaccination to enroll in public school. “It was never sort of something that the public took upon themselves to demand. It was always something that came from the government,” she said.
It would be in the country’s best interest, Cahill suggested, for Trump to take the win on this one.
“I think he deserves the win on this one, to be quite frank,” Cahill said. “If it had occurred in any other administration, we would have acknowledged the President and his leadership as a large part in the success. And so I think that in some ways, the President sometimes steps on his own applause line.”
“I think in this case, he really should say, ‘I told you we were going to have a vaccine by the end of the year. And we do, and it’s going to get rolled out, and I encourage all my supporters to accept it a as a win – as a victory for the Trump White House in the Trump administration.’”
Gwen Scott, coordinator at Fiddlers Grove, a collection of historic houses and artifacts on the fairgrounds, said it was important to wear masks. “Regardless of what you believe it’s real or not, why take a risk?” Scott said. “Why not protect your fellow man? Why not protect yourself? It’s so easy to put a mask on.”
Scott, too, is somewhat nervous about the vaccine.
“I’m still a little bit unsettled. I’ll be honest, anything new, that has not been proven – I’m not sure I want to be the guinea pig, you know?” But her husband is older, and wants to take it. “I really wish there was time for more testing, but there’s not. And we’re losing too many people too fast. So we’ve got to do what we can.”
“It’s become a political issue at times, but it shouldn’t be,” Scott said. “This is a health issue. And politics shouldn’t play into that.”