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Patients stream steadily into the COVID-19 vaccine center that Todd Engle can almost touch from his West Virginia backyard. But like scores of other Republican voters, force would likely be required to get a dose into his arm.

Many of the party’s millions of supporters are among the most vaccine-skeptical people in the U.S., which experts see as a dangerous barrier to finally taming the virus that has killed more than 540,000 Americans.

“If they try to make me get it, they’re just going to (have to) put me in jail,” the 58-year-old Engle said from the porch of his home in Martinsburg, referring to health authorities. “I just don’t trust them.”

West Virginia is heavily Republican — over 68% of its voters chose Republican Donald Trump in November’s election — and it has long been one of the nation’s poorest places.

Yet not all West Virginia Republicans are vaccine skeptics.

The state of under two million people has been lauded for quickly getting COVID-19 vaccines to its people while bigger, wealthier and Democrat-led states have sometimes struggled to do the same.

Part of that effort is the vaccine site behind Engle’s home, which operates in a recreation center gymnasium with the kind of efficiency that bustling, pre-pandemic airports could only dream of.

Nurse Angela Gray, 51, said the site has administered as many as 1,500 shots in a day.

‘Vaccine hesitancy on steroids’

“I try not to look at politics; that doesn’t matter,” Gray noted as nurses in masks, face shields and gloves delivered shots behind her. “But I’ve seen a lot of my fellow Republicans who are getting vaccinated.”

She added that Republican elected officials in the area have spoken up for the safety and effectiveness of the shots and gotten inoculated themselves, a key part of efforts to convince the skeptics.

A COVID-19 vaccination center in Martinsburg, West Virginia | AFP-JIJI
A COVID-19 vaccination center in Martinsburg, West Virginia | AFP-JIJI

But in towns across the United States, skeptics are numerous.

According to a poll last week, 41% of Republicans nationally said they would not get the vaccine, compared to just 11% of Democrats. It is a startlingly high number considering 74 million Americans voted for Trump in November.

African Americans have also shown high levels of opposition to the COVID-19 shots, but among Republicans the phenomenon appears more directly linked to America’s political polarization.

Neil Johnson, an expert on vaccine hesitancy, said he sees a collision of factors, including the belief that mainstream media outlets exaggerated the pandemic to hurt Trump and long-held resistance to vaccines generally, as well as distrust of the government.

“It’s like the usual hesitancy on steroids, because the distrust took on a political dimension because of the election last year,” said Johnson, a George Washington University professor. “It was like a perfect storm to have an election in the year of a pandemic.”

Trump, who often minimized the virus’s danger, on Tuesday gave his most explicit endorsement for the national mass vaccination campaign since he left office in January.

“It’s a great vaccine, it’s a safe vaccine and it’s something that works,” he said during an interview on Fox News.

But Trump left office in January without disclosing that he and his wife, Melania, had quietly been vaccinated.

‘All about herd immunity’

For Christine Miller — the treasurer of the Republican club in Berkeley County, where Martinsburg is located — Trump’s words came too late, because people have already decided.

“It’s a personal choice. People in the rural areas, though, I don’t see them going for it. I see them doing too much research for themselves,” said the 63-year-old, who as a cancer survivor with chronic bronchitis is more susceptible to a serious case of COVID-19.

Republican and vaccine-skeptic Betty DeHaven says authorities
Republican and vaccine-skeptic Betty DeHaven says authorities “would have to hold me down and force me to take the vaccine.” | AFP-JIJI

She said she won’t take the shots currently available.

“It’s not worth the risk,” Miller said before a club meeting, saying she was concerned about reports — which experts say are rare — of serious side effects. “I can wait.”

Johnson said waiting or not getting the vaccine at all carries significant risks for the United States, which has by far the world’s largest death toll and caseload.

“It’s all about herd immunity,” he said, referring to the point when most of a population has acquired defenses against a virus, whether through vaccination or from having survived the disease.

Vaccination campaigns can reach large portions of populations, he added, but success is determined by whether an overwhelming majority of people can be inoculated.

If and when that point is reached in Martinsburg, it will most certainly be without 76-year-old Betty DeHaven, a Republican club supporter.

“They would have to hold me down and force me to take the vaccine,” she said. “I consider that one of my rights, that I can refuse.”

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