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Republicans' sweeping denunciations of President Joe Biden's plan to force more people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus are raising concerns among public health experts that this heated criticism could help fuel a broader rejection of other vaccine requirements, including those put in place by schools and the military, as the issue of inoculations becomes increasingly political.
Over the weekend, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., declared on Twitter that there should be "NO VACCINE MANDATES."
More than a dozen other prominent Republicans in Congress and in the states have made similarly defiant statements in recent days, often using inflammatory rhetoric. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster pledged to fight Biden and Democrats "to the gates of hell" on coronavirus vaccine mandates, while Rep. Elise Stefanik, N.Y., condemned Biden's recent mandate as "authoritarian" and the work of "a power hungry government."
Rep. Jim Banks, Ind., declared in a tweet Sunday evening that "vaccine mandates are unAmerican!"
Many of these elected officials have declined to elaborate on their views about vaccine requirements and whether they only object to Biden's federal plan or also think other mandates put in place by school districts, the military and private employers should be rethought or banned.
The sharp rhetoric and failure to clarify their broader views on vaccines are worrying some public health experts.
"The 20th century was a century of incredible progress against leading killers, and much of that progress was because of vaccinations," said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. "If we turn our back on vaccines at this moment where vaccines are really having a scientific heyday . . . I think that would be tragic, and it would cause a lot of unnecessary suffering and death, particularly among children."
Vaccine mandates like the ones in schools and the military have been a hallmark of public health efforts to mitigate dangerous diseases for decades and have faced little opposition, Jha noted.
"Why would we want to roll back the miracles of modern medicine?" he asked. "That defies the kind of logic of where we should be heading as a country."
Several Republicans have said they believe that people should get vaccinated against the coronavirus but should not be required to do so. That approach, however, has done little to overcome the problem of vaccine hesitancy that has helped prolong the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to strain hospitals and kill thousands of Americans.
Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine and a leading expert on the virus, is already worried about the decline of other vaccinations in the United States, particularly among children.
"The problem is that, with covid-19, with the social disruptions, there was a steep decline in childhood vaccinations, including things like [measles-mumps-rubella] vaccines and especially teenagers getting the HPV vaccine for cervical cancer and other cancers," he said. "It's starting to rebound, but my worry is that there will be a spillover effect from all of this anti-vaccine aggression that we're seeing and that we're not going to get back to baseline."
Given their statements, McCarthy and others in his party could be seen as suggesting a broad rethinking of vaccine policies across the country.
The recent GOP denunciations of vaccine mandates come in response to Biden's decision last week to force companies to require their employees to get a coronavirus vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing.
McCarthy's office declined to provide specifics about whether the top House Republican opposes requirements in schools, the military and private businesses that individuals be vaccinated against deadly diseases such as the measles, meningitis and typhoid. McCarthy remained silent when asked twice Monday in the Capitol to answer questions about his views on vaccines beyond the coronavirus.
A Stefanik spokeswoman said the lawmaker's comment referred only to Biden's coronavirus order and declined to answer questions about her views on requirements for other vaccines in the military and schools. A spokesman for Banks said the Indiana Republican was opposed to all federal vaccine mandates and believes that such decisions should be made on the state level. McCarthy and Banks announced months ago that they had been vaccinated; a spokesman for Stefanik did not respond to a request for comment on the subject.
The growing anti-science stance among many Republicans comes with great risk, Hotez said, and could result in fewer children vaccinated against a variety of diseases.
"Where I'm holding my breath is next winter-spring, which historically is when we saw measles epidemics in the pre-vaccine era. I'm worried about the potential of seeing a measles outbreak in the U.S.," he said.
Several Republican governors - including McMaster, Ron DeSantis in Florida and Tate Reeves in Mississippi - oppose the Biden plan, even though they lead states that require students to get vaccinated against a host of other diseases.
Noel Brewer, a professor of public health behavior at the University of North Carolina, said it would be "concerning" if the Republican Party were shifting toward a general rejection of all vaccine requirements. He drew a parallel between some Republicans' current resistance to Biden's coronavirus vaccine mandate and the opposition that developed toward HPV vaccine mandates in the 2000s.
"Women in government sponsored policies in all 50 states, sponsored laws in all 50 states, to require the vaccine. And then when that became the public knowledge, there was widespread outrage," Brewer said. "The idea of the HPV vaccine requirement died. That was really, really pretty much the end of it for a long time."
Some Republicans, such as Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., have disparaged coronavirus vaccine requirements by arguing that the U.S. population will develop natural immunity against the virus, an idea both Brewer and Jha dismissed, arguing that too many Americans would be killed by covid-19 in the process.
"It's not something that public health embraces as a viable option," Brewer said. "It's a very, very grim way of seeing the world. The hospitals are full of young kids and babies, and that trend will only accelerate. We're not a nation that takes comfort in watching kids get sick and die."
In an interview Monday, Paul called Biden's mandate "a real mistake" because it does not exempt those who have recovered from covid-19 from being vaccinated.
"It's an insult and disservice to every hospital worker that worked over the last year, before the vaccine, got covid, naturally has immunity," Paul said.
Public health experts argue that providing proof of a previous infection would be difficult and, moreover, that those who have recovered from covid-19 acquire more robust coronavirus protection once they are vaccinated.
Among the most vocal critics of Biden's vaccine mandate are House Republicans, who have argued that the step infringes on Americans' individual rights and represents the pinnacle of government overreach.
During a House Judiciary Committee markup Monday afternoon, Republicans tried to introduce an amendment that would prohibit the Justice Department from withholding federal funds from businesses that decide against the mandate and do not require their employees to get tested.
Several Republicans said the unvaccinated, especially those who have survived infection, should not be punished for their decision. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., argued that Biden's executive order is misguided and "unscientific" because it does not consider those protected by coronavirus antibodies. (Studies have found that natural immunity wanes over time.)
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who introduced the amendment - which was ultimately rejected - said he had received the coronavirus vaccine after seeing that the data proves it prevents severe illness or death. But he said he would not impose it on the unvaccinated because the "threat they pose to themselves is their responsibility" and nobody else's business.
"So, in this brave new world of Big Brother Biden, what is to stop the government from forcing every American from getting a flu shot or a tetanus shot or a hepatitis shot or a shingles shot? The president warns his patience is wearing thin. Mr. Biden, our patience as Americans is wearing thin," McClintock said.
Public health experts note that unvaccinated people do, in fact, pose a risk to others, including to children who are not yet old enough to be vaccinated and immunocompromised individuals.
Asked in an interview to clarify whether his position is the same for states that have mandated an array of vaccinations for employees or schoolchildren, McClintock declined to say.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., interrupted the debate to note how he still limps after a polio diagnosis that could have been prevented had his father, a doctor, immunized him with the vaccine, which was only in testing trials then.
"I'm a strong proponent of vaccinations. Most every state in our nation requires children to have vaccinations of many kinds, and nobody objects," he said. "I, as someone who suffered from not having the vaccination when it was available - it became available to all in 1955 - and have suffered from it, have felt necessary to make these remarks to encourage everyone to take a shot."
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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.