POLITICO: ‘Potentially a death sentence’: White House goes off on vaccine fearmongers
The administration has shifted to a head-on strategy to dispel fear-mongering over its door-to-door efforts
13 July, 2021
The Biden administration is casting conservative opponents of its Covid-19 vaccine campaign as dangerous and extreme, adopting a more aggressive political posture in an attempt to maneuver through the public health conundrum.
The White House has decided to hit back harder on misinformation and scare tactics after Republican lawmakers and conservative activists pledged to fight the administration’s stated plans to go “door-to-door” to increase vaccination rates. The pushback will include directly calling out social media platforms and conservative news shows that promote such tactics.
“The big misinterpretation that Fox News or whomever else is saying is that they are essentially envisioning a bunch of federal workers knocking on your door, telling you you’ve got to do something that you don’t want to do,” Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in an interview on Sunday. “That’s absolutely not the case, it’s trusted messengers who are part of the community doing that — not government officials. So that’s where I think the disconnect is.”
Fauci took some of that messaging to Sunday cable news shows, including underscoring the idea that door-to-door vaccination efforts are an attempt to remove barriers to access and that 99.5 percent of deaths due to Covid are among people who are unvaccinated.
“Those data kind of hits you right between the eyes,” Fauci said of the fatalities.
Biden allied groups, including the Democratic National Committee, are also planning to engage fact-checkers more aggressively and work with SMS carriers to dispel misinformation about vaccines that is sent over social media and text messages. The goal is to ensure that people who may have difficulty getting a vaccination because of issues like transportation see those barriers lessened or removed entirely.
“We are steadfastly committed to keeping politics out of the effort to get every American vaccinated so that we can save lives and help our economy further recover,” White House spokesperson Kevin Munoz said. “When we see deliberate efforts to spread misinformation, we view that as an impediment to the country’s public health and will not shy away from calling that out.”
The pushback is a change of tone and approach from earlier this year, when the White House often chose to ignore its most vocal conservative critics out of a desire not to elevate them. It is a tacit acknowledgment that the July 4 goal of 70 percent vaccination nationwide was overly optimistic, if not naive. And it underscores that two realities are setting in: It’s becoming more difficult to convince vaccine-skeptics to get their shots (of the 10 least vaccinated states, all were won by Donald Trump in 2020) and the anti-vaccine voices, already vocal in the country, are becoming more mainstreamed by Republicans eager to oppose Biden-led initiatives.
Indeed, over the past few weeks, criticism of the administration’s door-to-door vaccination strategy has increasingly become a fixture on Fox News, in addition to being a top topic on conservative social media posts and over SMS messages to cell phone users. It’s coming at a time when the highly contagious Delta variant is triggering a rise in hospitalizations and infections among those who have not been vaccinated. Those who are door knocking are individuals like pastors or grassroots organizers, not government bureaucrats. And they are not delivering vaccines, but spreading the word on where and how to get vaccinated, and why it’s important to do so. To the degree that people understand that, the White House reasons, it could have a positive impact on increasing vaccinations.
That hasn’t stopped conservative media figures from misrepresenting those efforts in strident, almost apocalyptic terms.
Charlie Kirk, the pro-Trump co-founder of the conservative student organization Turning Point USA, said on Fox last week that he was embarking on a “massive public relations campaign” around vaccination efforts, which he compared it to an “Apartheid-style open air hostage situation.” (Turning Point’s other founder, Bill Montgomery, died last year from coronavirus-related complications.)
Turning Point Action, a 501 c(4) affiliated with TPUSA, has also sent out SMS messages urging people to sign petitions on the topic. In one message, viewed by POLITICO, Kirk contends, “Biden is sending goons DOOR-TO-DOOR to make you take a Covid-19 vaccine. Sign the petition to: No medical raids in America.”
In an interview with Right Side Broadcasting during the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) offered a different variety of false scare tactics, suggesting that the administration would use door-to-door vaccination efforts as a means to “take your guns” and “your Bibles.”
The White House didn’t respond to Kirk or Cawthorn. But after Parson sent a tweet attacking the door-to-door approach, Zients went after the Missouri governor directly.
“Organizations that are feeding misinformation and trying to mischaracterize this type of trusted-messenger work, I believe you are doing a disservice to the country and to the doctors, the faith leaders, community leaders, and others who are working to get people vaccinated, save lives, and help end this pandemic,” Zients said at a news conference last week.
Psaki offered a similar type of pushback on Friday, when asked about South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s push for the state’s Department of Health to prohibit “‘door to door’ tactics in the State’s ongoing vaccination efforts.”
Psaki said it was “disservice to the country” to spread the disinformation and that “the failure to provide accurate public health information, including the efficacy of vaccines and the accessibility of them to people across the country, including South Carolina, is literally killing people, so maybe they should consider that.”
The press secretary also pointed out that the administration has, for months, engaged with local community groups and pastors to handle the “door-to-door” sharing of information with neighbors about the vaccine.
One of those groups the administration has teamed up with on the ground is the COVID Collaborative, co-founded by George W. Bush alum John Bridgeland.
Bridgeland said his group had already seen a shift on the ground with people shutting doors “in their faces because they don’t want to get vaccinated.” His biggest concern is that these lies convince communities [who] are already wary of the vaccines, creating sects of the country where the virus just bounces among the unvaccinated.”
“It’s completely illogical and it’s potentially a death sentence,” Bridgeland said, adding that he’s watched the rhetoric ramp up in recent weeks. “It’s being coordinated by people who have platforms and have an interest in bringing down the current administration.”