There’s been an anti-vaccination movement in U.S. politics for far longer than there’s been covid-19. For years, activists — and future presidents — tried to drum up skepticism about vaccination programs, often citing debunked research linking vaccines to other problems. But, for years, that effort sat at the fringe, the obvious benefits of vaccination and the lack of demonstrated risks dampening any widespread concern about the system.
That has changed. And it has changed not because vaccines were proved not to be effective at improving health but because they were proved effective as a partisan rhetorical device.
By now, the Republican backlash against the coronavirus vaccine is well established. Research has shown that Republicans are far less likely to have gotten a dose of a coronavirus vaccine, a result of a targeted effort by Donald Trump and others to downplay the threat of the virus in the 2020 election year. Trump centered his pandemic response on the effective development and rollout of vaccines to address the virus, but because he and his allies had sowed so much skepticism about government officials and the deadliness of covid-19, uptake among Republicans lagged Democrats dramatically. The effect of this reluctance can be measured in lives lost.
Opposition to vaccination was often interwoven with opposition to vaccine mandates. Republicans were (and remain) more skeptical of coronavirus vaccines, but the political objection is often focused on mandates from employers or institutions that people get vaccinated. Such mandates have existed for decades in public schools and the military, inspiring little protest beyond from that existing anti-vaccine fringe. But the coronavirus vaccines arrived in early 2021 with a new president, and mandates aimed at reducing the virus’s spread and increasing survivability were instead cast as big-government overreach from a Democratic Party focused more on control than health. Mandates broadly — vaccines, masks — were presented as unacceptable intrusions on freedom. (This, too, was not new.)
The question, then, was whether this would spill over into other vaccine mandates. There were signs it would; Republican legislators began introducing measures aimed at ending mandates for elementary school students to receive basic inoculations. Things like the safe, effective measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine were suddenly drawn into partisan disputes over freedom.
On Friday, KFF released new polling looking at how other views of other vaccine programs have changed since vaccinations became a loaded partisan issue. It found that, compared with October 2019 polling from Pew Research Center, most Americans still saw MMR vaccinations as useful. The biggest drop was among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
Interestingly, even those who haven’t received a dose of a coronavirus vaccine still say the benefits of the MMR vaccine outweigh the risk — though they’re less likely to say so (70 percent) than are the coronavirus vaccinated (90 percent).
Where vaccination program support has plunged is in support for MMR mandates. Overall support for such mandates before children start school fell from 8 in 10 to 7 in 10 since October 2019. Among Democrats, though, the figure barely budged. Among Republicans, it fell from 80 percent to a bit over half.
Among those who haven’t been vaccinated against the coronavirus — again, a group that’s disproportionately Republican — only a bit over a third support MMR mandates for schools.
There is a reason for such mandates, of course. Protecting children against common childhood diseases makes it harder for those diseases to gain a foothold. As a parent of young kids, I can attest to the rapid spread of illness among kids grouped together in schools and day cares for several hours a day. That levels of protection against these particularly contagious or dangerous illnesses is high is useful. Where vaccination rates aren’t high, the diseases can suddenly erupt. Which, of course, is why governmental agencies mandate vaccination.
So far, there hasn’t been an apparent outbreak of any of the MMR illnesses in an American school with low vaccination rates. In part, that’s a function of mandates still being in place. The question, though, is whether those mandates will continue to be targeted by skeptical partisans and, subsequently, whether new infections will arise.
Thanks to a pandemic that killed more than 1 million Americans, we may soon get an answer to that question.