GOP seeks to convince vaccine skeptics within its own ranks

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Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2019, file photo, Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., speaks on the House floor at the Capitol in Washington. With vaccination rates lagging in red states, Republican leaders have begun stepping up efforts to persuade their supporters to get the shot, at times combating misinformation spread by some of their own. (House Television via AP)

WASHINGTON – When a group of Republican doctors in Congress released a video selling the safety of the coronavirus vaccine, their message wasn't explicitly aimed at their conservative constituents, but nonetheless had a clear political bent.

Getting the shot is the best way to “end the government's restrictions on our freedoms," Rep. Larry Bucshon, an Indiana Republican and heart surgeon who donned a white lab coat and stethoscope when he spoke into the camera.

The public service announcement was the latest effort from GOP leaders to shrink the vaccination gap between their party and Democrats. With vaccination rates lagging in red states, Republican leaders have stepped up efforts to persuade their supporters to get the shot, at times combating misinformation spread by some of their own.

“Medicine and science and illness, that should not be political,” said Dr. Brad Wenstrup, a Republican congressman from Ohio and a podiatrist who has personally administered coronavirus vaccine shots both as an Army Reserve officer and as an ordinary doctor. “But it was an election year and it really was.”

Wenstrup said both parties helped foment some skepticism, though increasingly vocal moves by other Republicans amount to acknowledgement that GOP vaccine hesitancy is a growing public health problem — and potentially a political one.

"Things could easily spiral quickly if we don’t solve this red-state-blue-state issue," said Kavita Patel, a physician and health policy expert who worked in the Obama administration.

Patel said life could return to normal in certain parts of the country while the pandemic continues to rage elsewhere — potentially even disrupting in-person voting in primaries ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

“We could be sitting here in the winter-fall with an entirely different, scary version of the pandemic,” she said. “One driven by a combination of variants and people who didn’t want to get vaccinated.”