Mar 19, 2021 - News
Some Minnesota Republicans hesitant to get COVID-19 vaccine
Illustration of an elephant standing on a chair because he is afraid of a vaccine vial.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A political divide over the COVID-19 vaccine threatens to hamper efforts to hit herd immunity — and the return to pre-pandemic life — in Minnesota and beyond.

State of play: Public polling has shown that vaccine hesitancy remains stubbornly high among Republicans. That could be a problem as wider swaths of the population become eligible for a shot.

  • 50% of Minnesota Republicans say they won't get a vaccine, per one recent KSTP/Survey USA poll, compared with 28% of the total state population. Seven in 10 who identify as "very conservative" are a no.

Driving the news: Public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, say endorsements from GOP leaders could make a difference.

But here in Minnesota, outreach and support from GOP leaders has been mixed.

While some Republican figures have promoted the vaccine — even going as far as helping people find appointments — others, including numerous state legislators and former Viking Matt Birk, have expressed concerns or skepticism.

  • Scott Jensen, a physician and former state senator running for governor, told WCCO Radio he'd recommend the vaccine for older patients. But, contrary to public health guidance, he would "leave it at your choice" for people who are young and healthy and have concerns.
  • Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan told Torey vaccination is a personal choice and that the party has no role in promoting the public health initiative.
    • When asked whether she'll get a shot, Carnahan said she's been too busy with her leadership re-election campaign to consider it.

The other side: House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt is among those voicing support for COVID-19 vaccinations, though he noted the rights of those who don't want a shot should be protected.

  • "I personally have 100% confidence in the vaccine and would encourage anyone to get it."

Why it matters: Given the hyper-politicization of the pandemic, "continued messages [of support] from elected Republicans would go a long way" in persuading hesitant Republicans, University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said.

  • Yes, but ... Brian McClung, a public affairs pro who worked as a top aide to former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, noted that a recent focus group found nonpolitician messengers could be even more effective for those who are hesitant because of partisan polarization and distrust in government.
  • Hearing from doctors or hospitality leaders about the role mass vaccination plays in getting people back to their restaurants could be especially powerful, McClung said.

The bottom line: Public health experts estimate that up to 80% of the population needs to gain immunity to COVID-19, either through a vaccine or contracting the virus itself, to significantly stop spread.

  • Without a bigger share of Republicans on board, that's going to be harder to hit.

This story first appeared in the Axios Twin Cities newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.

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