As conservative figures come around on vaccines, so do their followers

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Vaccination rates are increasing in states with the highest rates of new coronavirus infections.

A growing number of Americans now view the COVID-19 pandemic with a pessimism not seen since the start of this year, new polling shows, as uncontrolled coronavirus delta variant spread has led to record hospitalizations in states with low vaccination rates and fears persist about even worse virus mutations that could be on the horizon.

But it's not all bad news: Vaccinations are on the rise and skepticism is falling among key groups of vaccine holdouts, government data and public opinion research show.

"We are seeing results," White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients said in a press briefing Thursday, pointing to record vaccination rates over the past several days not matched since early July.

"Importantly, we're seeing the most significant increases in the states with the highest case rates," Zients added, noting that vaccinations in some key states are taking place "at a pace not seen since April."

Numerous factors account for this increase in vaccinations, as more Americans learn about the dangers of remaining unvaccinated and a growing number of employers are now mandating the shots. And experts highlight another key driver of shifting vaccine behaviors: Republican politicians and right-wing media figures.

Research thus far has primarily focused on how GOP figures' anti-science rhetoric trickles down to their voters. A recent study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that those who said they relied predominantly on conservative media outlets had much less confidence in health authorities providing trustworthy information about the pandemic.

A 2020 study from Matt Motta, assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University, found that individuals' professed intention to receive the COVID vaccine shifted based on cues from their political leaders.

When Democratic leaders expressed hesitation about the vaccine, as then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) did in a debate with former Vice President Mike Pence towards the end of her campaign, Democratic voters followed suit, Motta's research showed.

Republican voters, meanwhile, have supported vaccination at consistently lower rates than Democrats, as their leaders continued to downplay the severity of the pandemic. Today, just 51% of Republicans say they've received one COVID shot, compared to 92% of Democrats.

"We're in this position now where, to I think a great degree, Republican politicians have cast doubt on vaccines, have cast doubt on the virus's origins, and Republicans in the public have followed suit," Motta explained in an interview with the American Independent Foundation last month.

But Motta added that this presents an opportunity for those GOP leaders to make a tremendous impact by promoting vaccination.

"If you can get Republican [leaders] to stand up for science, to stand up for public health, to stand up for vaccines, you're going to have an easier time convincing Republicans in public to do the same," Motta said.

Polling conducted by Morning Consult appears to show this phenomenon in action. Amid a sea of criticism over their frequent anti-vaccination comments, some Fox News hosts last month began to shift their tone, promoting the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines to their viewers.

As that shift took place, vaccine hesitancy rates among Fox viewers fell, the polling showed. This week, the share of Fox viewers who expressed hesitancy about getting a vaccine fell to an all-time low of 27%, down 10 percentage points from March.

A similar trend appears to be taking place among GOP politicians. While many Republican leaders have maintained stringent opposition to public health measures, others have started to change their tune. Vaccination rates in some red states, meanwhile, have begun to tick up — possibly demonstrating that voters do indeed listen to their leaders.

While many celebrate this GOP shift in messaging on vaccines and public health more broadly, some have called out the hypocrisy of leaders now touting something that they demonized for months. Some Fox personalities continue to spread misinformation about vaccination.

But advocacy for vaccinations from all sources is vital to reaching the end of the pandemic, experts say.

"We need the hypocrisy to get over this. We need people to change their minds and to convince others to do the same," Motta said.

"And if that makes people a hypocrite, fine, but it's how we're going to get out of this."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.