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Vaccine hesitancy is high among Pa. Republicans, but few party leaders are doing much to change skeptics’ minds

These skeptics need reassurance from elected officials they trust. But here, many GOP lawmakers are keeping quiet about the vaccine, and some of the ones speaking up are spreading misinformation.

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Camden County Vaccination Center at Camden County College.
The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Camden County Vaccination Center at Camden County College.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

As Pennsylvania pivots to a new phase of its coronavirus vaccination campaign, and focuses on persuading reluctant residents to get their shots, there’s one group that will be especially tough to win over — the scores of Republicans who say they don’t plan to ever get immunized.

Communications and public health experts say these skeptics need reassurance from the Republican elected officials they trust the most. But in Pennsylvania, all but a few GOP lawmakers are keeping quiet about the vaccine, and some of the ones speaking up are spreading misinformation or sending mixed messages about its safety and efficacy.

State Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon) falsely called the vaccine poison on social media and vowed not to get one. State Rep. Dawn Keefer (R., York) introduced legislation that would ban businesses or sports venues from requiring proof of vaccination. And State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) wants to block employers from forcing their workers to get the shot.

Doctors say this rhetoric could have deadly consequences.

“We urge Republican leaders across Pennsylvania to reach out to their supporters and let them know that they have the choice to get vaccinated as a way to protect themselves and their loved ones,” said Meaghan Reid, an emergency physician in the Philadelphia area who addressed the issue at a recent event she hosted with other concerned doctors.

“We cannot afford to turn our backs on the one resource that can help us eradicate COVID-19.”

» READ MORE: As Americans scramble to get vaccinated, many rural, conservative Pennsylvanians feel no urgency

The silence and inaction stand in contrast to the work other communities are doing to change minds about the vaccine. For example, longtime State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) and his wife, Sheryl Lee Ralph-Hughes, a Tony-winning actress and singer, are hosting five clinics across West Philadelphia this weekend to get more Black residents vaccinated. And more than 1,000 people have already signed up.

Acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary Alison Beam acknowledged the link between vaccine hesitancy and political party affiliation at a recent news conference and said the state has worked closely with Republican leaders to spread the truth about the development of the three coronavirus vaccines authorized for use in the United States.

“Where we found that there has been misinformation that has really caught hold in certain communities, we’ve been able to use science and truly our evidence-based experience to be able to tell folks there may be more of a picture that they might not be seeing initially,” Beam said.

The Philadelphia and Bucks County health departments, however, said they’re not targeting Republicans as they push to vaccinate all who are eligible.

“The health department has worked closely with councilmembers throughout the city to encourage folks to get vaccinated and will continue to do so without regard for their political party,” said James Garrow, communications director for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

The Wolf administration’s most vocal Republican partner is State Rep. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster), who belongs to the bipartisan vaccine task force along with State Rep. Tim O’Neal (R., Washington) and has been trying to convince fellow Republicans that the shots are safe and effective. Aument recently got vaccinated at a Lancaster clinic he helped set up.

» READ MORE: ‘The challenge to come’: Vaccinations are open, but demand is down, turning Pa. and Philly’s focus to fighting hesitancy

“I get feedback from folks who tell me I need to go do something else, and focus on something else, or who are quite frankly angry that I have taken the position I have,” Aument told WITF in an interview. But he’s not deterred. Getting vaccinated, he tells his constituents, is the best way to help businesses reopen, end mask mandates, and reboot the economy.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) have cheered news of smooth vaccine distribution in their districts and encouraged vaccination generally. Corman has also hosted town halls to answer constituents’ questions and includes tips on where to get vaccinated in his newsletter.

They have not, however, implored skeptical Republicans to get the shot or criticized the lawmakers spreading misinformation. Websites for the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus and the Pennsylvania Senate Republicans display no prominent information about how to get vaccinated. Websites for the Democratic caucuses do.

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for Cutler, said the House speaker hasn’t engaged in any partisan vaccine outreach because Pennsylvania lawmakers are prohibited from doing so.

“They cannot hold a constituent meeting for Republicans only, or do a telephone town hall event and only call registered Democrats’ phone numbers,” said Straub, who didn’t respond when asked for more information about the rule.

Even in Chester County, which has vaccinated a larger share of eligible adults than any other Pennsylvania county, a “very vocal, very staunch” subset of Republicans are still refusing the shot, said Tom Donohue, executive vice chair of the county GOP, and he doesn’t expect them to budge off that position.

Donohue said people who don’t want the vaccine tend to believe the pandemic was overblown — and many of those beliefs trace back to misinformation being disseminated by some of the same politicians and extremists who spread lies about the outcome of the presidential election.

Reid, the Philadelphia emergency doctor, listed some of the wildest vaccine conspiracy theories she’s seen spread online. “They will not cause infertility, they will not affect your DNA, they don’t contain any microchips, and they don’t contain the virus itself,” she said.

Corman spoke about vaccine misinformation in his most recent town hall, saying, “I would implore everyone to follow the science and to listen to the health experts and to make the best, educated decision.”

Reid and the other doctors were begging Republican elected officials to promote vaccination, but Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist who leads the de Beaumont Foundation, said Republicans’ own doctors may be the best messengers.

“If I were having a heart attack, I would want a doctor running toward me, not a governor,” Castrucci said. “We know who people want to hear from. In poll after poll, they tell us they want to hear from their doctors, their own doctors.”

A focus group Castrucci hosted last month on Zoom with GOP communications expert Frank Luntz offers some clues and a word of caution about how to reach vaccine-hesitant Trump voters. Stop talking about the possibility of coronavirus booster shots, the participants said. And don’t bully people who are vaccine holdouts.

The group also demonstrated just how entrenched some vaccine opponents’ beliefs are.

“The further we go into the vaccination process, the more passionate the hesitancy is,” Luntz said after the session. “If you’ve refused to take the vaccine this long, it’s going to be hard to switch you.”

Last week, 10 Republican members of Congress who practice medicine, including Pennsylvania Rep. John Joyce, did what many of their GOP counterparts in Pennsylvania’s state and local governments have so far been unwilling to do. They released a video promoting the coronavirus vaccine.

The senators and House members take turns speaking in the two-minute spot.

Some highlight the bureaucratic red tape Donald Trump cut through to deliver the vaccine quickly, even though Trump and his family kept quiet about their own shots. Others tout the vaccine’s rigorous and transparent government approval process. Mostly, they try to convince viewers that the vaccine is their ticket to freedom:

“We the American people have the opportunity to achieve peace of mind, and live life as free as before by choosing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”