WASHINGTON – The threat of the delta variant for people who are unvaccinated is prompting some influential Republicans across the country to urgently promote coronavirus vaccinations.
Yet in Minnesota, many GOP leaders are either keeping quiet on the development or taking the stance of U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who said it is not his job to tell people to get the vaccine.
"Here's the deal, the American people have the right to individual freedoms," Hagedorn said. "I've always encouraged people to deal with their doctors and ask their doctors exactly what they should do with their health, including vaccinations, and we should leave it to that."
Hagedorn was the only one of Minnesota's four Republican members of Congress to discuss vaccines when asked by the Star Tribune this week. Freshman Rep. Michelle Fischbach, who has been vaccinated, and fellow GOP Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber did not comment. Emmer chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP's campaign arm. Democrats from Minnesota's congressional delegation have publicly embraced and encouraged vaccinations.
The politicization of the nation's response to COVID-19 has been a consistent theme since the pandemic began. Yet, with vaccines now widely available and effective, public health officials have struggled to persuade more people to get their shots. In Minnesota, 65.1% of people 16 years and older have completed their vaccine series, according to the state. The delta variant is causing an estimated 75% of new cases in Minnesota. Many states' vaccination rates are lower, and vaccine skepticism isn't limited to Republicans and GOP voters.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has long promoted vaccines. He amplified that message during a news conference Tuesday, saying "these shots need to get in everybody's arm as rapidly as possible, or we're going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don't yearn for that we went through last year."
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican, said later in the week, "I would encourage people to get the vaccine."
"I have high confidence in it," he said after recently breaking his holdout and receiving the vaccine. "I got it myself."
Some House Republicans won't share their vaccination status. CNN reported Thursday that "nearly half of House Republicans still won't say publicly whether they are vaccinated against COVID-19, even as new cases rise nationwide."
When asked outside the House chamber Thursday if he'd been vaccinated, Hagedorn initially said, "none of your business." The second-term Republican, who was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer before the start of the pandemic and is being treated for a reoccurrence, eventually admitted he has received the vaccine. "The big hand of government, the Biden administration and others, need not to be browbeating the American people into doing things," Hagedorn said. "They should be recommending that folks talk to their doctors and make these decisions for themselves and what's best for their families."
Misinformation has further undercut the push to get more people vaccinated. "From Tim Pawlenty to Tim Walz, leaders across the political spectrum agree that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective and readily available in communities across Minnesota," Democratic Rep. Angie Craig said in a statement. "Unfortunately, right-wing media figures and some extremists in Congress continue to politicize vaccines and spread misinformation — undermining efforts to protect public health and defend our communities from this deadly virus."
Citing the delta variant, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday that nearly $1.9 million is headed to Minnesota, saying the money will go to 38 rural health clinics "who will use these resources to combat COVID-19 misinformation by developing and implementing additional vaccine confidence and outreach efforts."
At the state level, other Democrats have called out Republicans. "COVID is not the first virus to be politicized or exploited by politicians, but we are living right now with the real-time harm that comes from the exploitation of misinformation," said state Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, who said former President Donald Trump "used his powerful platform to mislead people."
But she said state lawmakers were at fault too, citing comments from state Senate Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who said on the chamber floor in June that children under 12 years old were at low risk. "Children have been sickened, children have died," she said, citing concerns about the spread of the variant ahead of classes in the fall. Spokeswoman Rachel Aplikowski said Gazelka's comments were in line with CDC guidance on how the virus affects children, and the DFL criticism was "political gamesmanship."
"We've generally held the position that people should talk to their doctors about vaccination and decide what's best for them," she said. Gazelka, who is considering a bid for governor in 2022, didn't comment for this story.
Some Minnesota Republicans have been more public about the vaccine. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has been vaccinated and appeared in a video where he urged others to also get their shots. Former GOP Gov. Pawlenty got his shot alongside DFL Gov. Walz.
Yet when asked about the vaccine this week, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Minnesota said chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who is married to Hagedorn, doesn't think it's her role to weigh in on whether people should get the shots.
"Healthcare decisions and choices are up to the individual and/or parents," spokesman Tyler Dunn said in an e-mail, noting that Carnahan did get vaccinated earlier this year.
In the halls of Congress, the pandemic is personal for Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar. Her father died in June 2020 from what Omar described at the time as "due to complications from COVID-19."
"I think it is really important for lawmakers to set the example to get vaccinated themselves and to tell people and encourage them that they should get vaccinated," Omar said in an interview when asked about Republicans. "It is shameful really that as leaders they're not leading in that regard and trying to keep everyone safe."
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.
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