CNN  — 

Social, moral and political pressure is beginning to build on tens of millions of Americans who decline to take safe, effective vaccines against Covid-19, as even some conservative politicians join the persuasion effort amid a dangerous new wave.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top government infectious diseases expert, bluntly warned on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday the pandemic is “going in the wrong direction” because 50% of the country is not fully vaccinated.

Fauci, one of the world’s most respected public health experts, has been demonized by conservative attacks. But as the Delta variant scythes through the unvaccinated heartland, a handful of conservative leaders are now mirroring his plea for holdouts to get their shots to save their lives.

But polling shows that many Americans in conservative states remain deeply skeptical of the vaccine and many intend never to take it, or are highly unlikely to change their minds as the virus – and a highly contagious variant – begins to deepen its terrible toll.

That reality is causing recalculations inside the White House about a crisis many of President Joe Biden’s top aides had hoped was all but over. Top officials are discussing the possibility of reviving mask guidance for vaccinated citizens in some areas where the virus is raging particularly severely. The prospect of another brutal fall and winter in the pandemic also threatens to detract from the President’s ambitious agenda, haunt his presidency and damage the economic recovery heading into midterm elections that were already a tough challenge.

Fauci said on “State of the Union” that the vast majority of American deaths in a worsening pandemic would come among those who have delayed getting their injections.

“This is an issue predominantly among the unvaccinated, which is the reason why we’re out there, practically pleading with the unvaccinated people to go out and get vaccinated,” he told Jake Tapper.

New political divides

The vaccine drive has yet again taken the lid off fundamental political divisions in the United States that remain raw after ex-President Donald Trump prioritized his political prospects over public health guidelines last year.

Some conservative commentators and politicians have falsely accused the Biden administration of trying to forcibly inoculate Americans against their will and dismissed the scientific advice of government experts. There are many reasons why Americans will not get vaccinated, including a belief that the virus is not that bad, the hope that rural lifestyles make catching Covid-19 less likely and general distrust of government experts. But generally, the least vaccinated states that are most at risk amid the current resurgence of Covid-19 were won by Trump in 2020 and are where Republican state and local leaders have been most resistant to social distancing measures.

The former President, despite claiming rightful credit for his administration’s role in developing highly effective vaccines, did “recommend” to his supporters at a teeming Arizona rally on Saturday that they get their shots. But he also showed that he was unwilling to spend political capital on an issue that might put him at odds with the base voters on whom he relies for a comeback.

“I also believe in your freedoms 100%,” Trump said, giving indirect blessing to those who spurn the vaccines. He further sabotaged the public health effort by claiming that the reason people were not taking advantage of it was because of his successor. “Because they don’t trust the President, people aren’t doing it,” Trump said. No one has sowed more distrust in the Biden administration than Trump himself with his endless and false claims of election fraud.

There is a risk to upping pressure on Americans who are reluctant to get vaccinated. Millions of conservative voters turned to Trump because they believed they were being victimized by “elite” officials, experts and journalists seeking to impose their views and values on what they saw as their own traditional American cultural customs. This impression, fostered by years of conservative media propaganda, could provide another rich pool of anger for the ex-President to exploit if it is deepened by new vaccine controversies.

As with masking, the issue of vaccines gets to the core question of American freedoms and the extent to which an individual’s interests should remain sacrosanct even if their actions put the rest of the community at risk.

Vaccine skeptics argue that the government should have no power to prevent them visiting their favorite bar or restaurant, whatever their personal choice on the vaccine. Americans who are vaccinated, however, question why those who won’t get the shot are not willing to help end the pandemic for everyone, amid fears that high levels of virus could spawn new variants resistant to vaccines.

While public health guidance suggests that most vaccinated Americans are protected from Covid-19, there are breakthrough infections – even if almost all of those fully vaccinated will not get seriously ill or die. And children under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated, are vulnerable – especially in disease hotspots – as are immunocompromised people who cannot get the vaccine.

The likely political price that Biden and other leaders would face in trying to introduce vaccine passports in order to enter restaurants, theaters and other public places, means such an idea is probably a non-starter in the US. In fact, some Republicans – like Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, where Covid infections are surging – have already outlawed such steps.

But as the potential toll of the latest Covid surge becomes clear, more conservative leaders are speaking up publicly in support of vaccines — and even conservative media pundits are getting on board after months spewing misinformation about the government vaccine effort.

Sanders is latest conservative to urge vaccines

Several Republican governors have strongly criticized people in their own states who won’t go ahead and get vaccinated, including Kay Ivey of Alabama and Jim Justice of West Virginia. Now, former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor in Arkansas, has publicly joined the pro-vaccine camp with an opinion article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper over the weekend.

She noted that 98% of those hospitalized in her state and 99% of those who had recently died from Covid were unvaccinated.

“Many of our hospitals are now dangerously close to maximum capacity due to rising COVID cases, and the heroic doctors and nurses who have stood on the frontlines of the pandemic need the ability to treat patients with other serious illnesses and emergencies as well,” Sanders wrote.

But her endorsement of vaccines was preceded by a volley of attacks on Democrats, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Fauci and media organizations she accused of damaging confidence in vaccines — even though the conservative media machine has been pushing misinformation for months.

It was a reminder of the political hoops that Republican politicians must now navigate in order to take a position based on facts — the effectiveness of vaccines — while trying not being seen as caving into what their constituents perceive as liberal experts and journalists.

The GOP governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, described the reason why the state’s new Covid infections are shooting through the roof on “State of the Union.”

“This is a pivotal moment in our race against the Covid virus. We have school coming up. We have a lot of sports activities that people are expecting and anxious about,” Hutchinson told Tapper. “And what’s holding us back is a low vaccination rate.”

But Hutchinson, again revealing the dicey political ground facing Republicans, defended his decision to approve a ban on state and local officials ordering face mask mandates — saying that at the time, the virus was at low levels.

“People knew exactly what to do. They were capable of making their decisions,” Hutchinson said. The ban passed both chambers of the Arkansas legislature in April and makes exceptions for private business. He did say, however, that conservative principles that allow for local control would allow officials to consider mask mandates, based on vaccination rates.

As new cases of Covid-19 rise across the country, Arkansas recorded 11,748 new infections and 56 new deaths over the last week – a positivity rate of 19.32%, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

While pleading with citizens to get vaccinated for their own good, Hutchinson said that he wouldn’t consider a vaccine mandate “because that would even cause a greater reaction of negativity toward the government, and then imposition on freedom.” Such reasoning is why such a move on the federal level is also all but unthinkable.

A Friday Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll among American adults yet to get a vaccine found that 45% say they will definitely not get the shots and 35% say they probably will not.

Such data explains why many experts believe that calls by national political figures like Biden are likely to be ineffective in boosting vaccination rates. Trusted community figures like doctors and faith leaders may have better success in bolstering vaccine take-up. And there may also be a more direct role for businesses and educational organizations.

“If someone doesn’t want to get vaccinated, I have no desire to hold them down and to force them to be vaccinated but they should make sure that they don’t harm others,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University.

“They either get the jab or they have to get two tests per week; they have to mask up. But we should absolutely make sure that if you make a decision not to be vaccinated that you just have no right to go unmasked and unvaccinated in a crowded work place,” Gostin said on “Smerconish” on CNN on Saturday.

“We need to make being vaccinated the default, the easy choice.”