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Increasingly, it’s a Republican pandemic.
The Associated Press reported last week that of the 18,000 American COVID-19 deaths in May, only 150 involved fully vaccinated people — and that “breakthrough” infections of vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of the 853,000 COVID-related hospitalizations during the month. Those low numbers suggest the pandemic death rate “could be practically zero if everyone eligible got the vaccine,” the news service concluded.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of vaccine holdouts. As David Leonhardt points out today at The New York Times, the refusers are trending Republican: The average county that voted for Donald Trump is just 34 percent vaccinated; the number is 45 percent for counties that went for Joe Biden. And unsurprisingly, the counties that have a low proportion of vaccinations have higher rates of new cases.
It’s here where you have to consider if Tucker Carlson holds the power of life and death — or, at least, good health or ill — over his nearly 3 million conservative viewers.
The Fox News anchor won’t disclose his own vaccination status. But he has used his show to make erroneous claims that COVID vaccines are killing people. He has also attacked businesses and events that limit their services to vaccinated people, claiming they are committing “medical Jim Crow.” “White Republican men are dangerous, and they can sit at the back of the bus,” he fumed. There are other conservative personalities who have failed to encourage vaccine use — Donald Trump has mostly been muted on the subject — but if there is an Anti-Vax Central in conservative media, Carlson’s show might well be it.
But Carlson can use his influence for good. During the first, terrifying days of the pandemic last March, he reportedly was a pivotal figure who helped convince then-President Trump to finally start taking the coronavirus seriously. “I felt I had a moral obligation to be useful in whatever small way I could,” Carlson told Vanity Fair in March 2020.
Carlson’s technique usually involves amplifying the fears and grievances of his audience, and encouraging vaccinations doesn’t fit neatly into that approach. But it’s not too late for him to do so anyway. The moral obligation remains, even if Carlson’s attitude has changed.