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Vaccinated versus unvaccinated: Lines harden as COVID surge continues

President Biden speaks about the coronavirus pandemic at the White House on Tuesday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

California officials announced Thursday they will require nearly all healthcare workers in the state to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 30. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday the city would require proof of vaccination for people entering restaurants, stores, gyms, spas and theaters, a step that Los Angeles is also considering.

The Pentagon is likely to move soon to require vaccinations for military service members. President Biden already announced last week that the federal government would require civilian employees and contractors to affirm they had gotten a COVID-19 shot or face restrictions, including frequent testing and limits on travel.

As the COVID-19 pandemic resurges, the roughly 7 in 10 adult Americans who have gotten vaccinated have begun to lose patience with the 3 in 10 who haven’t. In much of the country, especially Democratic-majority cities and states, public policy has begun to reflect that.

The shift in public feelings about the pandemic has come swiftly. In mid-June, 89% of Americans surveyed by Gallup said they thought the coronavirus situation in the U.S. was getting better. By mid-July, as the Delta variant fueled a new surge, that share had fallen to 40%, with 45% saying the situation was getting worse.

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That renewed concern, along with the fear that unvaccinated Americans are spreading the virus, provides the backdrop for the tougher policies. But will they work?

Answering that question requires some key facts about the roughly 80 million adult Americans who have not gotten a COVID-19 shot.

The ‘maybes’ versus the ‘definitely nots’

Discussions about the unvaccinated often treat them as a singular group, but “they’re not a monolith,” said Liz Hamel, director of public opinion research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has surveyed Americans since December on their views about the vaccines.

The unvaccinated population can be divided up in several ways, but one useful approach is to think of two large groups — the “maybes” and the “definitely nots.” They’re very different.

About 14% of American adults say they would definitely not get the vaccine, Kaiser’s surveys show. That’s about half of the unvaccinated adult population.

As Hamel noted, the size of that definitely not group hasn’t budged in seven months. In each survey Kaiser has conducted since December, that group has stayed between 13% and 15%, an almost unheard of level of stability.

Government and corporate vaccine mandates seem unlikely to change their position — indeed they may simply harden it.

The definitely nots are mostly white (65%) and Republican (nearly 6 in 10). About one-third are evangelical, white Christians. They’re also fairly young — three-quarters are younger than 50 with nearly one-third younger than 30.

By contrast to the stability of the definitely nots, the maybe group — those who say they want to “wait and see” before deciding — already has shrunk from nearly 4 in 10 U.S. adults in December to 1 in 10 now. The group currently makes up about one-third of the unvaccinated.

The makeup of the maybe population has shifted over time. Currently, the group is heavily Latino — 27%, roughly double the Latino share of the adult population. People with a high school education or less also make up a disproportionate share of the maybes.

Among the maybe group, lack of ready access to healthcare providers remains a significant barrier to getting vaccinated, Hamel notes. Worries about losing time from work also are a major issue.

Many people who have hesitated about getting the shots also say in surveys that they’re concerned the vaccines only have emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration. That worry could dissipate in coming weeks; the FDA is expected to give full approval to the Pfizer vaccine in September, and the Moderna vaccine soon after.

In the definitely not group, partisanship is a far larger driver. In Kaiser’s surveys, 5% of Democrats, but 20% of Republicans, say they definitely won’t get vaccinated. To date, 86% of Democrats, but only 54% of Republicans, have gotten at least one shot, Kaiser’s numbers show.

Along with that come strikingly different views of the health risks.

Three-quarters of the definitely not group say they think news reports have “generally exaggerated” the seriousness of the coronavirus, a position that former President Trump loudly and frequently espoused during the closing months of the 2020 campaign. Among the vaccinated, only 17% hold that view.

The maybe group is more closely divided, with 43% saying news reports about the virus have been generally exaggerated, 37% saying they’ve been generally accurate and 15% say they’ve generally underestimated the risk.

Reflecting their belief that the risk has been exaggerated, only 8% of the definitely nots say they worry about getting COVID-19 while 90% say they aren’t worried.

Strikingly, three-quarters of the definitely nots say they believe the vaccine poses a bigger risk than the disease, a belief contradicted by the experience of the more than 190 million Americans who have safely gotten at least one shot. To date, COVID-19 has killed more than 610,000 Americans.

People in the maybe group are far more likely to be worried about getting COVID-19 — 45% of them say so. And only one-third think the vaccine poses more of a risk than the virus.

That huge gap in attitudes can be seen in the rhetoric from political leaders.

Biden on Tuesday stressed the health risks of COVID-19 as he rebuked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who have blocked efforts by school districts and local governments to require masks in public buildings.

“The people are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives,” Biden said. “If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way.”

DeSantis, who has ridden opposition to COVID-related restrictions to prominence in the GOP, quickly fired back, using the language of personal choice and opposition to government mandates that has animated the Republican opposition to coronavirus restrictions.

“I am standing in your way,” he said at a news conference. “We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state, and I can tell you: Florida, we’re a free state.” Fewer than half of Florida residents have been vaccinated, and the state has been reporting record numbers of new infections.

As DeSantis’ rhetoric makes clear, he’s counting on opposition to vaccine mandates remaining strong, at least among Republican voters, even as the current virus surge continues.

Politically, that may be a smart bet for an office seeker with his eyes on winning a Republican presidential primary.

And yet, in the last couple of weeks, as the number of COVID-19 cases has shot upward in states from Missouri south to Texas and east to Florida, and as hospitals across that region have begun to warn about running out of beds, the number of people showing up to get vaccinated has begun to rise as well.

What’s not known — and won’t be clear for a while — is whether that increase is coming exclusively from people who were already thinking about getting vaccinated or whether the spread of illness has begun to soften the hard-core resistance.

“The next few weeks will reveal whether this moment shows change” in those entrenched attitudes, said Hamel. “If it does, it will be big.”

Taking California’s car standards national

Biden announced tougher car pollution standards on Thursday, along with new steps to speed the development of electric cars and trucks, Anna Phillips reported.

The announcement marked the latest move in a decadelong fight to dramatically cut carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. vehicle fleet, one of the country’s largest sources of gases that are warming the world’s climate.

In 2012, President Obama‘s administration announced a landmark agreement to cut emissions by increasing the average fuel economy of U.S. cars and trucks by 5% a year, reaching 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Trump rolled back that rule and said automakers would only need to improve fuel economy by 1.5% a year. Trump also tried to strip California’s long-standing legal authority to set its own, higher standards.

California air quality officials sought to protect the state’s power by cutting a deal in 2019 with four major automakers. The companies agreed to voluntarily comply with California’s rules in return for the state setting a fuel-economy standard that was more rigorous than Trump’s, but not as aggressive as Obama’s.

Biden’s announcement effectively set that compromise California standard as the national rule for the next four model years, through 2026. Officials said they would impose tougher rules starting in 2027, but those have yet to be written.

That won the support of the auto industry and the auto workers union, but disappointed many environmental advocates, who said the need for action on climate change demands more aggressive moves now, not later.

Our daily news podcast

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Cuomo moves toward impeachment

As his support crumbles, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has shown no sign that he’s willing to resign after a state attorney general’s report found he had sexually harassed at least 11 women.

Nearly the entire upper rank of the Democratic Party, including Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York’s two senators and the Democratic leaders of the state legislature have said Cuomo should step down. So, too, have influential civic and union leaders.

But as Nick Goldberg wrote, Cuomo has a long history of political pugilism. Voluntarily stepping aside is not his style.

The state Assembly is moving quickly toward a vote on impeaching Cuomo. The Assembly’s Judiciary Committee has given Cuomo until the end of next week to respond to the allegations. Members of the Democratic caucus say they want a vote by the end of the month.

One crucial difference between New York’s impeachment rules and the now-familiar process for impeaching a president: If a majority of the Assembly votes to impeach, Cuomo would be temporarily removed from office until a trial by the state Senate. Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor, a moderate Democrat from the Buffalo area, would become the state’s acting governor, which would make her its first female chief executive.

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The latest from Washington

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh is the best known and least popular Supreme Court justice, according to a new nationwide poll by Marquette University. The poll found about 60% of the public approves of the high court’s work, while 39% disapprove, David Savage reported.

Most of the individual justices are little known, but Kavanaugh’s high-profile confirmation battle has made him a household name — and not a terribly popular one: About a third of those surveyed gave him an unfavorable rating, a quarter were favorable and the rest said they didn’t know enough about him.

Thousands of Border Patrol agents and officers will soon begin wearing body cameras, Meena Venkataramanan reported.

The administration will allow temporary haven in the U.S. for Hong Kong residents amid Beijing’s continued crackdown on democracy there, Tracy Wilkinson reported.

The latest from California

As California’s gubernatorial recall election moves into full campaign mode, the Legislature heads into the home stretch for the year and the once-a-decade redistricting battle looms, The Times is launching a newsletter devoted solely to California politics.

For all the news of the political ups and downs of the Golden State, sign up for the new California Politics newsletter.

Here are a few of the latest highlights:

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his allies have raised tens of millions of dollars more than recall backers and GOP candidates, according to the latest disclosure reports. As Seema Mehta and Maloy Moore reported, Newsom has raised more than twice as much as all his opponents combined.

Republicans went after Newsom, mask mandates and critical race theory in a recall debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Mehta and Phil Willon reported.

And Newsom stepped up his attacks on recall candidate Larry Elder, saying the Republican talk show host would roll back California laws, Willon and Mehta reported.

For the record: Wednesday’s edition of Essential Politics said President Biden was the last Democrat to embrace repeal of federal funding for abortion in the 2020 primary. Biden was the last Democrat to embrace repeal of the ban on federal funding for abortion.

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