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Right-wing media is fueling vaccine rejection, and the cost will be measured in thousands of lives

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Over the last year, there has been considerable good news when looking at vaccines overall. When polling first began, fully 29% of Americans said they were unsure about taking the vaccine and 26% gave a flat-out “no.” Only 45% of those first asked gave an emphatic “yes.” Over time, as multiple vaccines have rolled out and the Biden administration has moved to make them widely available, most of those “unsure” responses have slowly moved to either the “yes” column or the “I have already been vaccinated response.” The bad news is that the “no” response has barely changed. Despite 230 million doses given out, regular indications of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, and encouraging signs that vaccination is the way back to something like the pre-pandemic normal, Republican resistance to vaccination remains unchanged.

The easiest reason is the simplest: the Republicans who make up almost all of that “no” block are simply not hearing any good news about vaccines. Instead, they’re being fed a constant stream of lies intended to keep them fearful.

Forty-five percent of Republicans still say they had no intention of accepting a COVID-19 vaccine.

In general, the Republican pattern reflects that of the broader population. Over time, those Republicans saying “yes” to the vaccine, and about half of those who originally responded that they were “unsure” have been converted to “I have already been vaccinated” responses. That leaves only 12% of Republican adults still saying they intend to get vaccinated, while a whopping 45% say they will not.

Vaccine hesitancy is precisely why, despite more available vaccine and more available vaccination locations, the total number of vaccinations taking place in the United States has been trending downward.

Rate of vaccination reached at peak at the beginning of April and has been falling rapidly.

In the United States, 54% of adults have now been vaccinated. That’s 139 million Americans. Another 19% of Americans say they want to get vaccinated. That’s 49 million. But right now, 60 million doses of vaccine are sitting unadministered in the United States, because those doses are piling up in states and counties where acceptance of vaccine has dipped down to a tiny fraction of the remaining population.

In addition to Tucker Carlson’s ongoing rants on Fox, Republicans who switched over to OAN in the last week have seen repeated stories claiming that COVID-19 vaccine causes ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Those tuning into Newsmax have been warned about dangerous counterfeit vaccines as well as claims that vaccines can cause infertility in women. OAN followed up by running an extended segment on how Americans are “losing confidence” in vaccines, while Newsmax topped off their rant with bizarre claims that white people are being denied the vaccine, and even more ludicrous assertions that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris engaged in an effort to “undermine the safety” of the vaccines because that somehow helped their campaign. In addition to encouraging people to attack anyone in masks, Tucker Carlson has repeatedly claimed that authorities are “lying” about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, claimed that vaccines only make things worse, and also insisted the vaccine causes miscarriages.

What’s genuinely odd about all the data is that actual news doesn’t seem to have moved the Republican needle one bit. Vaccine acceptance didn’t go up in response to FDA announcement about safety. It didn’t wiggle a bit as the U.S. passed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. It didn’t even go down in response to the pause in distributing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Fox, OAN, and Newsmax are feeding their viewers such a consistent stream of false news about vaccines, that real world events, good or bad, don’t actually affect their perception at all. That effort is being assisted by a network of accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites that, in spite of announced policy, are not blocking or deleting false statements about vaccines.

Just a dozen accounts on Facebook and Twitter are responsible for over 70% of the false information about vaccines being spread through social media. But the biggest of these accounts has skated along for months, absolutely unscathed.

As a result of all these lies, millions of Americans are likely to permanently refuse the vaccines. As a result of that, thousands of people will die. Some will die sooner, both among those who refuse to take the vaccine and those who contract the disease from them. 

And, as The New York Times reports, the lies are also squeezing into new venues. That includes the platform Twitch, which originated as a site to allow gamers to livestream their activities. Those live broadcasts now have gone beyond Mario speed runs and play along sessions of the latest hack and slash. Instead, Twitch is now hosting live broadcasts claiming that masks cause illness, vaccines contain surveillance technology, and a host of additional conspiracy theories about the vaccines. The “hosts” of these programs on Twitch no longer have any connection at all to gaming. They just use the platform for extended rants—and to rake in cash from true believers.

Considering all the various platforms, large and small, bombarding the public with lies and feeding conspiracy theories, maybe the miracle is that most Americans still shrugged all this off and got the vaccine. In the last week, there are signs that the epidemic in the United States has not just plateaued, but has begun to slowly decline. The number of people vaccinated in the U.S. isn’t enough to achieve herd immunity, but studies have indicated that this level of vaccination can decrease transmission enough to significantly slow the spread of COVID-19. We may be seeing that now.

And if the continued refusal of Republicans to get vaccinated is a threat to the nation, there is one immediate benefit—anyone who wants a vaccine can hopefully get it.

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India

While the situation in the United States may be improving when it comes to the number of new cases, the same absolutely can’t be said about India. The number of new cases for Tuesday is now above 364,000, and that’s unlikely to be the final count. With less than 2% of the population fully vaccinated, India is now reportedly running out of vaccine. Despite being a major source of vaccine manufacturing, a fumbled rollout, a slow rate of vaccination, and a media that has also spread anti-vax lies has left India struggling both to increase the rate of vaccination and to gain public acceptance. And it’s having that struggle in the midst of a spike that threatens to swamp the nation. The seven-day moving average for new cases is now higher than the highest single-day value in the United States. Reported deaths are now over 3,000 a day and reports are that this is only a fraction of those actually dying.

It would be great to report some good news out of India. There is none.

But at least some help is on the way, as it looks like President Biden is going to ship most of the U.S. supply of AstraZeneca vaccine (still not approved for use in the U.S.) to India.



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