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Trump boasts of vaccines, but will he try to persuade people to get shots?

President Trump speaks at the White House
President Trump touted the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines at the White House on Dec. 8, 2020.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Even as President Trump claims credit for the rapid development of vaccines against COVID-19, it remains unclear whether he will take the vaccine and how hard he’ll work to persuade skeptical followers to get immunized, particularly after he leaves office.

Other former presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have publicly committed to taking the vaccine, which may be shipped out to medical centers and nursing homes as soon as this weekend. So have President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Public health leaders say an all-out national effort will be necessary to persuade unwilling Americans — including a majority of Republicans, according to polls — to sign up and get a shot when the vaccine becomes more widely available, probably in the spring.

“It’s pretty clear that, in America, different people take their advice from different authorities,” said Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now leads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “It would likely have real impact if the president came out strongly for vaccination.”

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By some estimates, as many as three-quarters of all Americans may need to get vaccinated to effectively quash the pandemic.

The first vaccine expected to reach Americans — manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer — is under review by the Food and Drug Administration and is likely to get regulatory approval this week. As soon as it does, the drugmaker plans to begin shipping vaccine doses across the country so states can begin implementing their immunization plans.

White House officials say Trump will support the nationwide effort, and the president on Tuesday afternoon hosted a “vaccine summit” to tout his administration’s support for what he called a “modern-day miracle.”

“People that aren’t necessarily big fans of Donald Trump are saying, ‘Whether you like him or not, this is one of the greatest miracles in the history of modern-day medicine or any other medicine, any other age of medicine,’” he said.

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Trump did not say whether he would get the shot or encourage people to get it, but he digressed at length — and falsely — about how he won the election.

“The president has previously expressed his willingness to do whatever the experts thought was the best path, in terms of instilling vaccine confidence,” a senior White House aide told reporters Monday.

Because Trump already had COVID-19, White House officials wouldn’t commit that he would publicly get vaccinated to help persuade more Americans to take the same step. “There is an open question as to whether, ultimately, he will be one of the ones to take it on-air,” the aide said.

During a simultaneous event, Biden set a goal of immunizing 100 million people within the first 100 days of his administration. But he warned that Congress needs to provide more funding to ensure the distribution runs smoothly.

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“There’s a real chance that after an early round of vaccinations, the effort will slow and stall,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, Trump has been openly dismissive of public health guidance, eschewing and mocking mask-wearing and encouraging his supporters to pack into venues for his rallies, as recently as Saturday night in Georgia, despite the state’s surge in infections.

And, in the past, Trump has embraced the widely discredited notion that childhood vaccinations are linked to autism. “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes — AUTISM. Many such cases!” Trump tweeted on March 28, 2014.

More recently, however, during a 2019 measles outbreak that was linked to parents’ refusal to get their children vaccinated, Trump appeared to change course, telling reporters it was important for children to get the shot.

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With coronavirus cases now skyrocketing across the country, public health experts say a concerted nationwide effort will be necessary to get people immunized and may be the only thing that ultimately ends the public health crisis.

“It’s not going to be a pandemic for a lot longer, because I believe the vaccines are going to turn that around,” Fauci said last month at an event organized by Chatham House, a British think tank.

Polls show that rising numbers of Americans are willing to take the COVID vaccine, as confidence in the development process has grown in recent months. And several healthcare leaders have predicted that as more Americans get vaccinated, making a return to normality possible, acceptance will increase further.

“There are people saying they’re not inclined to get the vaccine, but after they see healthcare workers and the medically fragile do fine, the attractiveness of having immunity will become apparent,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican who was Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary.

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Leavitt downplayed the importance of Trump helping that effort, particularly after he leaves office. “Are there constituencies that will be convinced by the former president? Would that be useful? Yes,” he said. “Will it be critical? No.”

Nevertheless, 4 in 10 people in the latest Gallup poll still say they won’t get a COVID-19 shot. (Last year, fewer than half of U.S. adults got a flu vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Even some hospital leaders worry they won’t be able to persuade all their staff to take the vaccine.

Hesitancy is heavily concentrated among Republicans, half of whom said they wouldn’t get vaccinated. This week, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a Trump ally, invited a prominent vaccine skeptic to testify before his panel.

Given many Trump supporters’ resistance, his promotion of vaccines could only help, public health advocates believe. The president “is a familiar and trusted figure for a certain slice of the American population. So it would be a public service for him to advise people who trust in him to take a safe and effective vaccine,” said Monica Schoch-Spana, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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By contrast, 70% of Democrats said they were willing to take the vaccine, Gallup found.

The distribution plans in the states will initially target healthcare workers and residents and staff at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, where the coronavirus has taken a particularly deadly toll.

A second vaccine from drugmaker Moderna is expected to be cleared by the FDA next week and could begin shipping out soon after.

The speed of vaccine development — which has been heavily financed by the federal government through Operation Warp Speed — is something for which the Trump administration can justifiably take credit, according to experts.

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The administration this year committed more than $10 billion to drugmakers to help speed research and production of vaccines. And while other wealthy countries such as Britain and Australia, along with the European Union, also made advance vaccine purchases to speed development, the U.S. was among the most aggressive.

“We have to give Operation Warp Speed credit for getting vaccine through development and FDA approval as quickly as they did,” said Esther Krofah, executive director of FasterCures, a nonprofit think tank at the Milken Institute that is tracking COVID-19 vaccines and medicines.

Krofah noted, however, that actually vaccinating Americans may prove an equally large challenge.

“Where I see the blind spot,” she said, “is in the education and awareness, in creating an environment where people will actually accept it.”


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