The two most influential newspapers in the US put out a set of dueling vaccine op-eds today, with the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake delivering up evidence of what his article’s headline called the “slow and steady decline of the vaccine skeptics.” Over in the New York Times, meanwhile, science writer Tara Haelle argued that “[t]he Anti-Vaccine Movement Is Getting Stronger.”
It’s kind of a political version of Schrodinger’s Cat, with two observers looking at the same thing and coming up with radically different conclusions.
And the weird thing is that they’re both kind of right.
Blake bases his argument on some recent polls that show a decline in the numbers of those who say they won’t get vaccinated.
The Axios/Ipsos poll shows 20 percent of Americans now say they are either “not very likely” or “not at all likely” to get the vaccine, and 14 percent have effectively ruled it out. Both represent the lowest numbers recorded.
The numbers aren’t hugely different from where they have been in recent weeks, but overall the trend line is moving steadily downward. …
The findings mirror those of other recent polls conducted before the FDA announcement that show a decline in vaccine hesitancy, though not a huge one. An NBC News poll last week showed the number of people saying they won’t get vaccinated or will do so only if required at 16 percent. The number was at 27 percent in October and 19 percent in April.
Blake acknowledges that more extremist anti-vaxers don’t seem to be going anywhere right now, pointing to a
Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll last month showed more resilience in the most dug-in vaccine skeptics, with 17 percent saying they either won’t get vaccinated or will only do so if required. That’s similar to where that number has been throughout 2021.
It’s hard to argue with numbers like this; while the change has not beeen dramatic it seems to be a real trend.
So how does Tara Haelle, a science journalist writing in the New York Times, look at the same phenomenon and conclude that the anti-vax army is growing stronger and bolder by the day?
In part this is because she’s not looking at overall public opinion but is, rather, focusing on more extreme anti-vax activists — who, as Blake himself recognizes, aren’t softening their stands in the slightest. She also looks out further than the past several months, noting that
Over the last six years, anti-vaccine groups and leaders have begun to organize politically at a level like never before. They’ve founded state political action committees, formed coalitions with other constituencies, and built a vast network that is now the foundation of vaccination opposition by conservative groups and legislators across the country. They have taken common-sense concepts — that parents should be able to raise their children as they see fit, and that medical decisions should be autonomous and private — and warped them in ways that have set back decades of public health advances.
While she acknowledges that “[v]accine hesitancy has existed in some form since the development of the first vaccine over 200 years ago,” Haelle points out that vaccines “had not been a partisan issue in the United States” until an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in 2014-15 pushed the issue into the political sphere in a big way, leading right-wing politicians like Chris Christie and Rand Paul to defend the “choice” of parents who refused to get their kids vaccinated.
The new rhetorical focus on “free choice” resonated with vaccine skeptics — and they
used the measles outbreak and others to claim public officials would force “harmful” vaccines on people.
When COVID — and then the COVID vaccines — came along a few years later, the anti-vaxxers were ready for them, spewing out misinformation about vaccines on Facebook and even in some cases taking to the streets.
With vaccine refusal reframed as “parent choice,” Republicans could no longer risk appearing to oppose “freedom of choice” on any issue. More state anti-vaccine PACs and nonprofit groups formed, and social media allowed greater collaboration. The “freedom” messaging united anti-vaccine groups … and withstood social media platforms’ growing attempts to stanch false claims.
She concludes that
The Covid vaccine hesitancy running through the Republican Party threatens to do more than prolong this pandemic. It also threatens America’s ability to fight other diseases, of the past and the future.
It’s hard to argue with that.
Despite the radically different conclusions reached by these two artices, they in many ways complement one another. Blake shows that some of the more moderate vaccine skeptics may be willing to step back and embrace science. That’s heartening, especially if some of these people actually go and get themselves and their children shots.
But as Haelle makes clear, anti-vaxxers don’t have to have the whole world on their side in order to succeed in shaking up politics and spreading misinformation — just as the minority status of the GOP today doesn’t prevent right-wing politicians and their fans from causing a lot of trouble. The wider “vaccine skeptical” public may be losing some of its conviction, but the anti-vax activists are going to keep making a lot of noise as the rest of the pandemic, which they have clearly worsened, plays out.
Follow me on Twitter.
Send tips to dfutrelle at gmail dot com.
We Hunted the Mammoth relies entirely on readers like you for its survival. If you appreciate our work, please send a few bucks our way! Thanks!