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E.J. Dionne Jr.: Republicans unleashed deadly skepticism. Can they now contain it?
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E.J. Dionne Jr.: Republicans unleashed deadly skepticism. Can they now contain it?

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Bad news is leading to at least a bit of good news: The surge of the COVID-19 delta variant seems to have lit a fire under many Republican politicians. As the virus spreads largely in GOP regions with low vaccination rates, leaders of a party where anti-vax sentiment has run rampant have started sounding the alarm: Not getting vaccinated really can kill you.

One of the most unequivocal statements came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “These shots need to get in everybody’s arm as rapidly as possible,” he said last week, adding a swipe at those pushing falsehoods about vaccines, who happen to include many in his own party:

“I want to encourage everybody ... to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”

As Republican pollster Whit Ayres notes, McConnell, who endured polio as a child, has always embraced the power of vaccination. More surprising was a vaccine plug from Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, a longtime baiter of federal authorities whose reelection campaign is selling merchandise mocking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House health adviser.

Yes, even the man peddling “Don’t Fauci My Florida” T-shirts seems to have noticed that, over the past two weeks, 20% of all the nation’s new COVID-19 cases were in his state.

“If you look at the people that are being admitted to hospitals, over 95% of them are either not fully vaccinated or not vaccinated at all,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “And so these vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.”The pro-vaccine message is even reaching the heart of Trump country. “Folks are supposed to have common sense,” Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said on Thursday. “But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”

You might say the scolding was overdue. Ivey leads the country’s least vaccinated state.

We should cheer all Republicans joining the fight against the anti-vaccine undertow in their party — and be especially appreciative of Republican officials who have been there from the beginning.

Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, has been resolute in trying to keep politics out of vaccination efforts and spoke in an interview of his weekly calls with governors of both parties.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine are among those Republicans who have been especially passionate about getting the job done, Zients said. Republican governors of Democratic-leaning states — Phil Scott in Vermont, Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire — can be proud that their states are in the top 10 in vaccination rates.

Infuriatingly, there are still Republicans — Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin among them — who continue to reinforce right-wing vaccine skepticism. The doubts they and others are spreading on Fox News (even if some in Fox’s ranks, including Sean Hannity, seem to be repenting) and on other pro-Trump outlets have created a toxic vaccine gap.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that as of July 23, the 20 states with the highest vaccination rates (counting the District of Columbia as a state) all voted for Joe Biden.

A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of CDC data found that as of July 6, the average vaccination rate in counties that voted for Biden was 46.7%. In counties that voted for Donald Trump, the vaccination rate was 35%.

Three states — Florida, Texas and Missouri — accounted for 40% of new covid cases last week.

It’s the new political geography of sickness and death.

Ayres, the Republican pollster, said the growing willingness of leaders of his party to speak up for vaccinations is a response to dangers that can no longer be ignored. “The surge is in the red states and the red counties,” he said in an interview, “and there’s a real concern about protecting the health of people who are not yet vaccinated, many of whom are our people.”

We can be thankful that the facts are starting to matter. In recent weeks, Zients notes, the five states with the highest rates of COVID-19 cases — Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Nevada — had a higher rate of new vaccinations than the national average.

So please, Republican politicians, keep shouting from the rooftops about the imperative of getting vaccinated. But you also need to take another virus seriously. The spread of extremism in your party is deadly — to our health and to our democracy.

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter @EJDionne.

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