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Over a third of Republicans don't want the COVID vaccine — so what next?

One year since start of COVID pandemic
One year since start of COVID pandemic 07:44

The Biden administration, advocacy groups and states are making a push for minority and underprivileged communities who have often been overlooked and mistreated by the medical community to get the COVID-19 vaccine, a key element in the effort to immunize these groups. But there is no concerted effort to change the minds of one of the factions most resistant to getting the vaccine: the "definitely not" Republicans. 

Gabriel Smithson, a 52-year-old Republican and father of four who lives in Tennessee, doesn't intend to take the vaccine, and his wife, Alice Smithson, won't either. He said that one of his children became sick after getting the flu shot years ago, and that's part of the reason he and his family count themselves among the COVID-19 vaccine skeptics. Smithson, a Trump supporter, is not opposed to all vaccines: he says he trusts those that have been around for longer, like the shot for polio. For now, Smithson just doesn't think any of the COVID-19 vaccines are worth the risk. 

"This is a brand new vaccine," Smithson said. "I'm not going to jeopardize my health, I'm not going to put my kids in harm's way. ... I don't want to play guinea pig." 

Many Republicans feel the same way. A recent CBS News poll found 34% of Republicans say they will not be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Independents aren't too far behind, with 30% refusing the shots, while only 10% of Democrats say they'll abstain. Republicans are the least likely to say "yes," they will get the vaccine or "already did" — 42% — compared to 46% of independents and 70% of Democrats. 

Former President Trump and Melania Trump were quietly vaccinated at the White House in January, in contrast with other top GOP officials including Vice President Pence, who took his shot on television. Mr. Trump has not publicly mentioned that he was inoculated, even while he encouraged others to take the vaccine at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida. Dr. Anthony Fauci said he considered Mr. Trump's silence about his vaccination a "lost opportunity."

But Republicans have hardly been alone in their skepticism. When Mr. Trump was president, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to be concerned that the Food and Drug Administration was rushing the vaccine. Vice President Kamala Harris was criticized last year when she at first declined to say whether she would take the vaccine and said she "would not trust Donald Trump" on its reliability. 

Republicans are "not a monolithic group," said Liz Hamel, vice president and director of public opinion and survey research at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. But the polling she and her colleagues have conducted in recent months has consistently found that Republicans are the biggest ideological group of what she calls the "definitely nots."

"We see that they are more likely to say they're definitely not likely to take the vaccine — but it's still only a minority of Republicans that say that," she said. 

It's not a small minority, though. Overall, KFF found in late February that four in 10 Republicans (38%) would either "definitely not" be vaccinated or would only get shots "if required."

Between December and February, KFF polling has shown an increase overall in the percentage of people who are enthusiastic about getting the vaccine — since the first vaccines were authorized —and a decline in the percentage of people who say they want to wait and see how the vaccine pans out first. Those who live in rural settings, more likely to be Republicans than Democrats or independents, are also the biggest "definitely not" group — at 24%, versus 14% of those who live in the suburbs and 13% of those in urban communities, according to the latest KFF polling. 

January NPR/PBS poll found that 79% of voters who supported Joe Biden in November said they would get the vaccine, compared with only 39% of voters who supported Mr. Trump committing to get the shot. Forty-seven percent of Trump voters said they would not be vaccinated.

"What's happened, particularly for Republicans, is that 'definitely not' group has not gotten smaller," Hamel said. "It has stayed about the same. … We are sort of seeing a persistent share of the public overall, but particularly among Republicans that aren't budging and saying 'no, I definitely don't want it.'" 

If Republicans decline the shots in numbers that match the polling, it may be more difficult to reach a state of herd immunity, that is, when enough people in a community are protected from contracting COVID-19 because they've either recovered from it or have been vaccinated, according to the CDC. On Wednesday, Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser, said herd immunity for the virus would likely require 70% to 85% of the population to be vaccinated.

Will anyone persuade Republicans to get shots?

CBS News reached out to GOP leaders in the House and the Senate, the Republican Governors Association, Fox News, Newsmax and One America News Network to ask whether they are taking any actions to encourage their base or viewers to get shots. 

Among political leaders, most pointed to past statements or events involving mention of the vaccine. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's office was the only one that did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Conservative news outlets referred broadly to their coverage of events and political statements.

A December YouGov poll shared by Fox News found that while its viewers were about as likely as national Republicans to say they want to get vaccinated as soon as they can (33.2% vs. 33.6%), these viewers were slightly more likely than national Republicans to say they would not ever get the shots (25.8% vs. 20.8%).

Fox News Channel referred to, among other things, a public service announcement about vaccines it released in February, and which featured network correspondents and anchors Harris Faulkner, Dana Perino, John Roberts and Steve Doocy. Sean Hannity, one of the network's most influential TV and radio hosts and a close friend of Mr. Trump, did not participate. But the network has also aired coverage casting doubt on the vaccines. Primetime host Tucker Carlson, for instance, said in one segment that powerful people are "lying" about them and trying to suppress questions about its safety. 

Newsmax, which has grown in viewership as former President Trump has lambasted Fox News' coverage, sent this statement about its coverage of the vaccine:

"Newsmax has been covering the vaccines and their rollouts with expert analysis from medical doctors and professionals," Newsmax said in a statement. "They have all encouraged our viewers to get the vaccine and follow the advice of their doctors. We have not received negative feedback from our viewers on this."

When One America News was asked what it's doing to encourage viewers to get the vaccine through its coverage, a spokesperson sent a link to a New York Times story about Mr. Trump getting vaccinated. Asked again how and whether the network is encouraging vaccinations through its coverage, the representative said OAN has reported extensively on the development and benefit of herd immunity through the vaccine and through COVID-recovered persons, the high efficacy of the vaccines, the rollout efforts nationwide and statements by Mr. Trump and other officials supportive of the vaccine. In November, YouTube removed OAN video and suspended the network from its partnership program for posting coronavirus misinformation.

Asked what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would do to urge Republicans to be vaccinated, his office pointed to the his past statements promoting the vaccine. McConnell tweeted that he had been vaccinated, along with a picture of his vaccination card, in December. 

"As a polio survivor, I am a huge supporter of vaccinations. Whenever my turn comes, I will absolutely take the vaccine and do my part to reassure anyone who's doubtful. It's the right thing to do for yourself, for your family, and for the country," McConnell tweeted in mid-December

The Republican Governors Association noted that several GOP governors have been promoting the vaccine. Texas Governor Greg Abbott received the vaccine in a televised photo op. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis joined a World War II veteran as he received his vaccine live on Fox News, and has held press conferences across the state on the vaccine's effectiveness. In Arizona, state officials held an event with a number of faith leaders from various traditions to encourage congregants to get vaccinated.  

The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration is considering how it might invest in persuading Republicans to take their shots, including by having officials go on Fox News to tout the vaccine. 

Persuading this "definitely not" group won't be easy, Hamel said. 

But Republicans, who are more likely than other ideological groups to say getting vaccinated is a personal choice rather than a public responsibility, are more likely to respond to messages about how it benefits them personally, Hamel said. They are less likely than other ideological groups to trust the information from the government, perhaps even less so when it is run by Democrats. 

Hamel's polling nonetheless shows messaging that is likely to coax Republicans to get their shots is no different than what is persuasive for any other group: citing the efficacy of the vaccine, how it will prevent them from getting sick, and how it's the quickest means of returning to normal life. And as is the case across the ideological spectrum, people are more likely to listen to their personal doctors and family and friends than politicians or media partisans.

"It's really more about convincing them that getting vaccinated is the right choice for them," Hamel said. 

At this point, Smithson's longtime physician hasn't recommended he take the vaccine. If he does, that's about the only thing that could potentially change the Tennessean's mind. 

"My doctor would have to be the one who says, 'Hey, you need this,'" said Smithson. He added, "And it would have to be down the road, because it's just so new." 

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