How did getting COVID-19 vaccines become a political hot potato?

Posted at 6:24 PM, Oct 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-13 19:47:50-04

When the vaccine to protect against COVID-19 was developed, what had previously been a way of life for generations of Coastal Bend residents since childhood suddenly became a political hot potato. Flu shots are available every year and in workplaces around the country now.

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is a phenomenon Texas A&M-Kingsville associate professor of political science professor Travis Braidwood believes was spurred by the 2020 presidential election.

"So on the left; them accusing Republicans — conservatives — of saying that they are completely divorced from science and that they’re not looking at reality," he said. "And then you have conservatives saying that liberals and Democrats want to take away individual freedoms and liberties and turn this (country) into a police state."

Adding another layer to the issue is Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order, issued Monday, which bans businesses and other entities from requiring employee vaccinations against the novel coronavirus. It comes after President Joe Biden announced his plan in September to stem the COVID-19 spread by requiring the employees of businesses with more than 100 people to be vaccinated or be tested weekly.

But how did an issue such as vaccines — which generally is left in the hands of medical and public health professionals — end up being played out along political lines?

It's a result that personally bothers some local doctors.

"It is very frustrating when political leaders who do not have that same (medical and health care) background are trying to weigh in and create policies and procedures without our input," said Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District Clinical Director Dr. Kim Onufrak.

And neither party is innocent in the matter, Braidwood said.

"That stems from the very nature of the origins of the outbreak itself, and who wants to avoid blame, and take credit."

Braidwood said former president Donald Trump and his nationalist rhetoric — Trump often used evocative words such as "Chinavirus" to refer to COVID-19 — played a part in turning a medical crisis into a political football.

"So, in the end, this de-evolution of language and phrasing here — like tossing around words like ‘police state’ or, you know, ‘unconstitutional mandate’ or ‘excess of federal power,’ ‘overreach’ — these words get bantered around to score political points rather than necessarily (being) based in reality," he said.

Donald Trump
FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump stands on the field before the 121st Army-Navy Football Game in Michie Stadium at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Trump himself largely keeps to the Oval Office, still fighting the Election Day results and offering scant acknowledgement of the pain and suffering the nation is facing in the darkest hours of the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

The fact that a lot of Trump supporters choose not to be vaccinated is paradoxical, because Trump took pride in the vaccines being developed under his leadership.

Braidwood said it would have been interesting to see if things had turned out differently had Trump won re-election.

"Would he be more in favor of pushing for things like mandates and claiming credit for the speed of the vaccine?" he said. "Because when it first came out, the Trump administration was saying ‘Look at this great thing that we’ve done. Look at how far we’ve advanced’ in terms of science."

But since the Biden administration took office, Braidwood said Trump supporters find themselves in a bit of a Catch-22.

"Now, the Trump side of the Republican party is pretty quick to say ‘We like this. Vaccines are great. Everyone should get them; everyone should do it. But individual liberty. But no mandates. But no masks.' Things like that," he said. "So . . . a thing we can never know is: Would it have been different if Trump had won?"

The fact that people are more willing to take health advice from politicians instead of medical professionals is especially insulting to some local doctors.

"You know, we in medicine and science and public health, we do a lot of education when it comes to trying to be up-to-date on the current treatments, what is going on in the world," Onufrak said. "I mean, we at public health, we were studying the virus and we were trying to implement strategies in January, before it came in March."

Onufrak said she, personally, also kept up with research as it was available in order to be able to help city and county officials react appropriately in real-time.

"I read articles, different articles every single night, you know, and I did read up on articles about hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin," she said. "Everything out there. Every night. It was just trying to get all this information, and the majority of the information that we’re trying to give you is what the rest of the medical and scientific world is practicing, and what we are seeing working."

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So it was disheartening to her to see people putting their faith in the Internet.

"They should have allowed public health to do their job and educate the public instead of having all of these political websites trying to weigh in with their, what I believe are uneducated viewpoints and opinions," she said.

Braidwood also said that the echo chambers created by social networking also fuel the division.

"This biased information-seeking is now easier than ever, and you can then create this insulated bubble of people on your social-media networks that all agree with you," he said. "Even if you don’t know who they are, you still have that reinforcement. You are now privy to information that other people might be, so this only works to reinforce the us vs. them mentality and reinforce pre-existing beliefs."

With peoples' polarized beliefs being so engrained, Braidwood has a hard time seeing how the trend can be reversed.

"Is there a way to move away from politicalization of the vaccine? Or, from mandates or anything like that," he said. "Because now, if you have people discounting direct information and instead coming up with this echo chamber of support, such as, like, you’re being magnetized or they’re tracking you or something like that, and they can find the support on their social networks, is there a way to make people forget those beliefs?"

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He said research has been done to see if those deep-seated beliefs can be updated, but that's tricky, too.

"Typically it only comes from the people if it’s the source of the information they find trustworthy," he said. "So if you could get people like Donald Trump, who has already said that people should get the vaccine, but if he started coming out in favor of mandates or you started seeing more people push back against misinformation, then you could see the change in opinions."

But with a lack of political incentive to do it, Braidwood said, it's a hard sell.

"An example of this is Trump getting booed at one of his own rallies by talking about mandates or vaccines, and so it doesn’t really seem like there’s a good way out of that loop," he said. "That vicious cycle."

It's a cycle Physicians PremiER co-founder Dr. Lonnie Schwirtlich said he, personally, wishes had never been started.

"In my opinion politicizing medicine has done a tremendous amount of harm to medicine and the care of people," he said. "Medicine needs to be pure and simple. Whether something works or not should not be dependent on who supports it or not. The best studies are done when there is no bias. So it needs o be completely taken out of medicine, and medicine should be pure based on science and not on which political party or group sponsors it. Period."