Gov. Kay Ivey gives the State of the State Address to a joint session of the Alabama Legislature on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in the old house chamber of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Alabama governor: It's time to start blaming unvaccinated folks
01:00 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey’s blunt message that unvaccinated people are letting the nation down capped a week where some Republicans finally seemed ready to abandon their dangerous coddling of Covid-19 vaccine skeptics and push Americans to get the shot.

“Folks are supposed to have common sense. But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks,” Ivey said in frustration Thursday as she spoke from the least vaccinated state in the nation. “It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”

Ivey’s deliverance of hard truth followed a week of troubling Covid headlines, when some other Republican governors also redoubled their efforts to get their constituents vaccinated, including Missouri’s Mike Parson, West Virginia’s Jim Justice and Florida’s Ron DeSantis. At the same time – while speaking the gospel of “personal responsibility – many GOP governors have resisted calls for mask mandates or future shutdowns. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana – the No. 2 Republican in the House – finally got his first Covid-19 vaccine shot after watching cases rise and talked about it publicly. Even Fox News host Sean Hannity seemed to encourage viewers to get vaccinated on his show this week, underscoring that he believes in the science of vaccination.

The surprising course correction cannot come soon enough, as the highly contagious Delta variant ravages the least vaccinated communities in the country at a time when only 48.9% of the US population is fully vaccinated. Only 20 states have fully vaccinated more than half their residents. At the lower end of the spectrum, Alabama and Mississippi are the only states to have fully vaccinated less than 35% of their residents – and Ivey pointed out this week that almost 100% of new hospitalizations are unvaccinated patients.

Though the Trump administration oversaw the historic push to produce Covid-19 vaccines in record time, myths about vaccines have flourished in conservative circles on social media and were given oxygen on Fox News, where television hosts routinely questioned public safety measures that were meant to curb the spread of the virus.

Those voices are often the loudest among GOP base voters. But by siding with vaccine skeptics, Republicans faced an untenable position as they headed into the midterms – one that would have given them little room to maneuver or criticize the Biden administration’s Covid response. They have repeatedly charged Democrats with government overreach for enforcing mask mandates and lockdowns at the state level. But if those drastic measures became necessary again – Republican governors would have only had their own constituents to blame for refusing to get vaccinated and allowing the resurgence of the virus.

“It’s fairly obvious that that polling must have started to reflect that the American people, (a) believe in the vaccines, and (b) don’t understand why the party of Trump – which developed the vaccine – is now all of a sudden against vaccines,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor. “I have a feeling that politically – that was taking its toll.”

Jennings added that there is no desire among Republican lawmakers or governors to “go back into lockdown or mask mandate mode, when there is a clear and easy, accessible tool that would prevent us from having to do that.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey underscored the GOP message about personal responsibility Friday as he urged constituents to acknowledge that the nation is in a new and worrisome phase of the pandemic.

“Please get the vaccine,” Ducey said in a statement. “We have made it clear from the very beginning that we will never mandate the vaccine, and we’ve taken action to prevent vaccine passports or mandates,” noting that he would not be listening to “the lockdown lobby.”

“We have a proven solution with the vaccine. I strongly encourage every Arizonan who is eligible for the vaccine to get it so they can protect themselves and our whole state,” the Republican governor said.

GOP lawmakers and strategists insist there was no single catalyst for the messaging shift, or shared set of talking points. Instead, they say there was simply rising alarm about the increase in deaths and hospitalizations among unvaccinated constituents and a sense that they needed to do more to move the needle.

“We need to up our game,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. “This thing is pretty bad.” Asked whether there has been any coordination between conservative media and lawmakers, Graham laughed: “Not that I know of.” The White House, however, has engaged directly with Fox about their pandemic coverage as they try to persuade viewers who might favor Fox News about the benefits of Covid-19 vaccines.

There has been a wide variation in messaging on vaccines from GOP lawmakers in recent months – from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has consistently advocated for Americans to get vaccinated, to members of the House Republican Conference – nearly half of whom still won’t say publicly whether they are vaccinated.

Concerning trends

The average number of new Covid-19 cases in the US each day is up to 43,746, according to Johns Hopkins University – a 65% increase over last week – and topping that 40,000 mark for the first time since early May. At a news conference this week, White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters that just three states with lower vaccination rates – Florida, Texas and Missouri – accounted for 40% of all cases nationwide.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the leader of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN that lawmakers began speaking up organically as they heard the dire warnings from public health officials on Capitol Hill and watched the climbing case counts in their states. Only about 250,000 people are being fully vaccinated per day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That daily average is the lowest since the end of January, when the US had only been vaccinating for about six weeks.

The newfound praise for vaccines among some Republicans could serve as a potential game changer in wearing down vaccine resistance among rural and conservative voters, who have been among the most reluctant to get vaccinated. It is also an important antidote to the messaging from former President Donald Trump, who still carries enormous influence among some conservative voters.

The former President, along with many of his more outspoken acolytes like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida, has routinely undermined science and ridiculed public safety measures that were intended to curb the spread of the virus over the past year. Though Trump received the vaccine before he left the White House, he has mentioned that fact only in passing and did not join other past presidents in their effort to publicize the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

Some Republicans wanted to serve as a counterweight to the constant barrage of stories about the wild Covid-19 pronouncements of figures like Greene, who has made false claims about vaccine-related deaths, along with others like Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – who relish their high-profile standoffs against the Biden administration or Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

“We want to make sure we aren’t associated with the loud, anti-vaccine types,” one GOP aide said.

The increasing fear among Americans about the rise of the Delta variant, paired with a rocky start of the week on Wall Street, also led to new worries among GOP lawmakers that the economy could sputter if the country can’t eradicate the virus.

At the start of a Senate hearing with Fauci this past week, Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, implored Americans to get vaccinated.

“Covid-19 won’t just go away. We need all Americans who can get the vaccine to get the vaccine,” said the North Carolina Republican, who’s not running for re-election. “If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your friends and family, for your neighbors and your local community. Do it so your grandchildren can go back to school or so your grandparents can go out to dinner.”

A few hours later, at the end of a Senate GOP conference lunch, another senator applauded Burr’s message. The headlines from the hearing had been about the latest battle between Fauci and Paul. But for some Republicans, Burr’s message was what resonated and deserved to be amplified. A source familiar with the GOP lunch told CNN that the lawmaker thanked Burr and told him that he was going to use that back home.

The White House has welcomed the positive input from Republicans about vaccines. During his first foray back on the campaign trail Friday night in Virginia – where he appeared on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe – President Joe Biden echoed his comments from a CNN town hall earlier in the week when he said that “a lot of our very conservative friends” have finally had “an altar call.”

“They’ve seen the Lord, whether it’s on Fox News, or whether it’s the most conservative commentators or governors,” the President said Friday. Though he did not mention Ivey by name, he referenced her comments and said he was “genuinely complimenting her.”

“It’s not about red states or blue states,” he said, speaking over protesters in the audience, “or guys like that hollering. It’s about life and it’s about death.”