‘My body, my choice.’ Republicans’ resistance may be slowing Florida vaccine campaign

·10 min read

During a late April meeting of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County, it dawned on party member Gustavo Garagorry, 54, that his stance in favor of COVID-19 vaccines was far from unanimous.

“At that meeting there were lots of people against the vaccine,” he said. “They were saying, ‘First, I’m not going to wear a mask. And I’m not getting vaccinated, either. It doesn’t do any good.’ ”

Garagorry described his reaction that day as one of dismay rather than surprise. As president of the Venezuelan American Republican Club of Miami-Dade, the Doral resident is active in local Republican circles. For weeks, he’d noticed firsthand how misinformation about the vaccine was taking hold among many fellow conservatives.

“There’s a certain group of people that has bought into all the conspiracy theories. They say they’re injecting nanochips in people, that people are getting sterilized [because of the vaccine],” neither of which is true.

“I think they’re completely wrong, and I believe we have to take this seriously,” Garagorry said.

“There’s pretty significant resistance to getting vaccinated, especially on the Republican side. It’s crazy. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I’m still seeing it.”

Garagorry’s observations on the ground in Miami track with the findings of poll after poll conducted at the national level this spring, which show Republican voters are significantly less likely to seek the shot than Democrats and Independents, a trend that could complicate the campaign to reach herd immunity in the United States.

By her own account, among those very unlikely to get vaccinated is Miami-based Muñeca Fuentes, who heads the Nicaraguan American Republican Alliance. Although she knows of people who’ve traveled to South Florida from Nicaragua to get the shot, Fuentes says most of her local friends are, like her, choosing against inoculation.

“Progressives talk about ‘my body, my choice’ when it comes to abortion. ...My body, my choice,” she said. “I’m not getting vaccinated.”

REPUBLICAN VACCINE HESITANCY, IN DEPTH

Even as vaccines became increasingly available over the course of the year, Republican resistance remained high. Last month, polls released by Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University both found that nearly half of Republican respondents would avoid getting vaccinated if possible.

Per the Kaiser Family Foundation, vaccine enthusiasm rose among Republicans from March to April, but that group continues to be the most resistant, with 1 in 5 (20%) saying they will “definitely not” get vaccinated. By contrast, just 13% of independents and 4% of Democrats expressed similar levels of opposition to the vaccine.

In partnership with the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that partisan vaccine hesitancy extends to the healthcare industry, with 40% of front-line Republican healthcare workers indicating they are not confident in the safety and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines (compared to 28% of Democrats).

Although there are a variety of reasons why people decline to be vaccinated, polls show a correlation between respondents’ political affiliations and their concern level about the pandemic in general. That could impact decision-making when it comes to vaccines. According to the Quinnipiac poll, for instance, 32% of Republicans say they are worried about another surge in COVID-19 cases, compared with 85% of Democrats. Notable gaps in concern level about the coronavirus have been fairly steady since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Republican state Sen. Manny Díaz represents parts of largely conservative Hialeah and chairs the Senate’s health policy committee. Based on conversations with constituents, he says the more significant dividing line for vaccine enthusiasm isn’t partisanship, but age, with older folks showing lesser hesitancy regardless of their politics.

“The interesting part is in my area, those older residents tend to be Republican, very much more so,” he said. And “there was no hesitation.” But Díaz says he’s noticed doubts among younger generations, with politics and “culture” playing a potential role.

“I think when anything’s new there’s some skepticism, and there tends to be more skepticism from those who have a little bit more mistrust in the government, and that tends to be more Republicans than anybody else. I think that’s part of it. I don’t think it’s tinfoil-hat-type stuff,” he said. “The folks that I have been speaking to, it’s a mixed bag. Some want to wait and see if there are any effects. Some are just not interested in the vaccine at all.”

Carl Latkin, a health behaviors researcher and vice chair at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that younger people are also less likely to get routine medical care, and more likely to get their information from social media.

Latkin faulted poor government messaging on how the vaccines were developed so quickly without cutting corners on safety. Republican leaders did little to bolster it.

Former President Donald Trump offered a “half-hearted at best” endorsement for the vaccines, Latkin said. Prior to that, COVID skepticism from Trump and local conservative leaders almost certainly fueled hesitancy, he added.

“When we had a president that was spreading incorrect and bogus information, that just leads to this whole atmosphere of, ‘Who do you believe? What should I believe?’ ” Latkin said.

Also tempering enthusiasm in his district, Díaz noted, are reports of (rare) adverse reactions, as well as lack of clarity about whether booster shots will be needed and how long immunity from vaccines lasts.

As far as Fuentes is concerned, her principal source of unease is the speed with which the vaccines were developed, and a perception that their long-term effects could be dangerous. (The CDC says long-term health problems are “extremely unlikely.”)

“I’m not going to get the vaccine because I feel it would be very premature. They made it too fast. … We still don’t know the consequences. Five or 10 years could go by before we know the real consequences of the vaccine,” she said. “I’m nobody’s guinea pig.”

Fuentes added that she feels comfortable continuing to take the same set of safety precautions against the coronavirus that she is taking now, including mask-wearing “when needed,” abiding by social distancing guidelines and keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer in her purse.

“I also keep chlorine dioxide at home. Each time I go out and I’m exposed to the public, I come home and I drink 20 drops,” she said. “But honestly I don’t believe in the vaccine.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says chlorine dioxide, an ingredient in disinfectant, can’t treat or prevent COVID-19, and could “pose significant risks to patient health.”

VACCINE MISINFORMATION ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Likely fueling some conservatives’ vaccine hesitancy in South Florida is the spread of misinformation in Republican-oriented spaces and communities in social media, where conspiracy theories about vaccines abound both in English and Spanish

Screenshot from a pro-Trump group on the messaging platform Telegram.
Screenshot from a pro-Trump group on the messaging platform Telegram.

Last month, using an ominous tone increasingly common during discussions of the vaccine, a group member falsely described the vaccination campaigns as an impending “mass die-off event,” with “millions of people already condemned to a death that will be certain, immutable, and agonizing.” She seemed to be citing a report from the ultraconservative website LifeSiteNews, which was debunked by the webiste Snopes.com, and which was removed from Facebook earlier this month for violating the platform’s policies regarding COVID-19.

On Facebook, anti-vaccine memes, posts and videos regularly crop up in the feeds of large groups and popular pages like Trump Team 2020 Florida, South Florida For Trump and Miami TRUMP Volunteers.

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Juan Fiol, the leader of Miami TRUMP Volunteers, said he has no plans to get vaccinated. Public health experts say people who have previously contracted the virus do not enjoy the same immunity as those protected by the vaccine. But also playing a factor is his belief that a rise in new variants means the vaccine won’t be effective for long, and that getting vaccinated is no carte blanche to go back to normal.

“They tell you, ‘Did you get vaccinated? Well, it doesn’t matter. Wear a mask. You still can’t go out.’ It’s a joke. What more do they want?”

It actually does matter, as the vaccines are protective against existing variants. It is unknown if people will need booster shots in the future.

In a reversal of previous guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on May 13 that fully vaccinated individuals can go without masks in most cases, even when they are indoors or in large groups.

René Garcia, county commissioner and chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade, says that policy change could be key in swaying current vaccine holdouts like Fiol.

“I believe the best way to move forward is to say, ‘If you’re vaccinated, if you’ve done your part, then you don’t have to keep wearing a mask,’ ” he said. “I tell everyone: ‘I got vaccinated to stop wearing masks.’ I say it jokingly, but I believe it moves people.”

He added: “It needs to be a personal decision. I respect people who decided to get vaccinated and I also respect those who don’t want to get vaccinated, and might be waiting a little bit longer to see the long-term results.”

TAMING VACCINE HESITANCY AMONG REPUBLICANS

To date, about 48% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, a far cry from the 80% threshold many scientists say the country needs to reach to achieve herd immunity. To close the gap, it will be important to address concerns among all people, according to a Pew report.

But while many health departments at the local level have taken steps to reach minority communities and other groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic, there have been few if any Republican-specific initiatives to tackle hesitancy.

“I think we need to continue to provide facts,” said Díaz. And “whatever new information we can get for the questions they keep asking.”

Garagorry, leader of the Venezuelan American Republican Club, said it would be helpful for Donald Trump to more forcefully encourage his supporters to seek the shot. The former president got vaccinated shortly before leaving office, but behind closed doors. He was also absent from pro-vaccination spots by the Covid Collaborative project and the Ad Council that featured all other living former presidents.

“If President Trump were the face of a campaign telling people to go out and get the shot because we have a dangerous pandemic in front of us, I believe it would be very effective,” he said.

Latkin, the health behaviors researcher from Johns Hopkins, had his own idea for convincing Trump voters: Vaccine recipients would be entered into a lottery for a golf game with the former president.

But the position of Trump supporters like Fuentes show that may not be enough.

“President Trump may have gotten the vaccine, his entire family may have gotten the vaccine, but Muñeca Fuentes isn’t getting it,” she said.

For now, Garagorry says he will focus on “controlling what [he] can control,” and continue taking precautions for his own health, including mask-wearing.

“This isn’t a game. OK, this may not have killed everyone, but it has killed many people. I’ve lost over 10 friends. Earlier today, a friend of mine died,” he said. “He wasn’t vaccinated.”