Talking Points

Fauci needs a new vaccine messaging strategy

"We know the U.S. has more than enough vaccines for everybody who is eligible," CNN's Jake Tapper said to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Anthony Fauci in an interview Sunday. So why isn't everyone getting a shot?

"You know, Jake," Fauci replied, "it's an inexplicable pushing back." He continued:

I really don't have a good explanation about why this is happening. I mean, it's ideological rigidity, I think. ... Vaccinations have nothing to do with politics. It's a public health issue. ... I just don't get [vaccine opposition among Republicans]. I mean, and I don't think that anybody who is thinking clearly can [share it]. What is that all about? I don't understand that, Jake.  [Fauci, via CNN]

We're 16 months into this pandemic, and vaccine skepticism is nothing new — nor is it a mystery. The most intense vaccine critics never shut up, and we have plenty of data on which demographics aren't vaccinated and why. If Fauci is truly puzzled here, if he truly doesn't understand why people oppose the COVID-19 vaccines, perhaps he should expand his news diet. (May I suggest a subscription to The Week?)

I don't think Fauci is actually confused, though. I think he's faking confusion as a (remarkably poor) messaging strategy. A tip: Calling people rigid and stupid won't win them to your cause, and it's baffling that this is the tack Fauci is taking so long after the pandemic began.

What messaging would have a better shot at success? One idea I've suggested repeatedly is a certain flexibility: If you're talking to Republicans, for example, highlight former President Donald Trump's role in the vaccine development. If you're talking to Democrats, focus on how limited that role really was.

But there are many unvaccinated Americans who don't have a strong ideological stance here. (Outright refusers make up only around 15 percent of the country. Another 20 percent is reluctant but probably persuadable.) Lots of people have a more practical concern, like schedule constraints or the mistaken belief that you have to pay for the shot. Others want to wait and see if their friends experience side effects and so may come around on their own. Still others would overcome their hesitancy for a relatively small carrot, like a lottery ticket, free beer, or a little bit of cash.

I'm as eager for people to get vaccinated as any, but dumping all these folks into one "ideological rigidity" basket is counterproductive and unfair. Fauci should know better by now.