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White House prepares to fight back in the Covid vaccine disinformation war

By Kevin Liptak, Kaitlan Collins and Jeff Zeleny, CNN

White House officials are devising ways to fight the spread of dangerous falsehoods about Covid-19 vaccines, administration officials told CNN, as Republicans and their media allies ramp up their vocal skepticism about vaccines.

President Joe Biden himself could soon take on some of the corrosive messages emanating from the right, officials said, as the administration’s vaccination efforts hit a wall just as the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus rips across the country. CNN spoke with five people in the administration who described the White House’s efforts to fight back against the misinformation swirling about Covid-19 vaccines.

And this week, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy will make a rare appearance in the White House press briefing room to talk about how the level of misinformation is now an urgent public health issue, according to a source familiar with the plan.

Officials are wary of taking steps that could alienate Republicans further and generate more skepticism of vaccines that health experts uniformly say is safe. And Biden has acknowledged openly that neither he nor his administration is the best positioned to convince Republicans to get the shot, pointing instead to local physicians, pharmacists or clergy members as more trusted messengers.

A senior administration official said a decision had been made to take a harder edge against the disinformation, with plans in the coming days to call out Republican elected officials and specific social media platforms.

“We are seeing the impact of the disinformation,” a senior administration official said, who acknowledged the difficult balance the West Wing was trying to strike by injecting the President into the fray.

Yet the White House is watching with concern as geographic gaps begin opening between places with higher vaccination rates and those where relatively few people have received shots. For Biden and his aides, reality is setting in that getting the entire country vaccinated will be the work of his entire presidency — and that pockets of the nation where vaccination rates remain low will continue to suffer outbreaks that hamper the nationwide recovery effort.

An enduring challenge drags on

Highly politicized and rife with misinformation, the debate over vaccines presents an enduring challenge for Biden even as he heralds the overall trajectory of the pandemic.

Nationwide, vaccination rates are dropping, while in 45 states, the rates of new cases this past week are at least 10% higher than the rates of new cases the previous week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Officials are planning a call to attention more than a call to action, according to an official.

The divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated has begun to break along political lines, with Democratic-leaning areas ahead of Republican ones in vaccination rates. Officials attribute part of the reason for the discrepancies to messages repeated in conservative media that question why people need the vaccine and that Biden’s attempts to get the country vaccinated amount to government overreach.

Already, some of Biden’s aides have begun taking a more assertive stance against Republicans who question the President’s efforts to deliver vaccines to every American. Federal health officials — including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who has been vilified in conservative media — have consistently insisted the vaccine be removed from politics.

Speaking in Detroit on Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris encouraged a crowd of health workers to rebut falsehoods that have been spread about the vaccine.

“We got to get the facts out, because sadly there’s a lot of misinformation,” Harris said in her remarks on Monday. “So, let’s know what it is, and let’s talk to our neighbors and our friends and say, ‘Here, let me tell you about the facts.'”

Lingering concerns in the community — and online

The scene inside Harris’ event, held in a downtown convention center, resembled the pre-pandemic era: a packed-in crowd had mostly removed their masks and a youth choir sang their hearts out, unconcerned at the direction of their aerosolized breath.

The tableau was exactly where the White House had hoped the country would be by midsummer as vaccination rates inched upward and caseloads dropped.

Biden has also returned to the type of in-person politicking that is his trademark. After a speech on voting rights Tuesday, he spent 45 minutes in the crowd shaking hands.

But underneath the scenes of normalcy exist a lingering concern: the administration’s efforts to promote vaccinations have stalled while the Delta variant rages.

“We have to be honest. Right now, at least in Detroit, we’ve fallen behind,” Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, said at Harris’ event. “We’ve got less than 40% vaccination in this city. And people are like, I don’t know anybody getting sick right now. We know what’s going to happen. We know what the seasonal flu season is like. In November, this Delta variant is going to hit this state hard.”

In Detroit, the limits of the administration’s ability to promote the vaccine were evident: nearly everyone who came to hear the vice president speak had already been vaccinated. Harris instead was encouraging the largely African American crowd to convince their friends and neighbors to get shots, too.

Biden on Wednesday will shoot vaccine information videos with Fauci and Olivia Rodrigo, a pop sensation the White House hopes will lure young people into getting shots.

And plans to more directly address the vaccine skepticism being aired on Fox News and other conservative outlets are set to roll out soon. Over the past week, the White House has sought to rebut conservative criticism of its plan to go door-to-door to educate Americans on the virus, a backlash fueled by conservative media that only underscored for officials the intensifying politicization of the vaccine effort.

“The failure to provide accurate public health information, including the efficacy of vaccines and the accessibility of them to people across the country, including South Carolina, is literally killing people,” press secretary Jen Psaki said last week, responding to criticism from Republican South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster over Biden’s efforts to get more Americans shots.

It’s not just voices on conservative outlets. The White House is also wrestling with how to combat vaccine misinformation on large social media platforms. In May, Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, confronted Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg about vaccine misconceptions he said stemmed from “postings on Facebook.”

“I’ve told Mark Zuckerberg directly that when we gather groups of people who are not vaccinated and we ask them, why aren’t you vaccinated, and they tell us things that are wrong, tell us things that are untrue, and we ask them where they’ve heard that, the most common answer is Facebook,” Klain told The New York Times.

While noting measures Facebook took to help people find vaccines, Klain declined to weigh in on whether companies like the social media giant should be regulated over issues like vaccine misinformation, saying it was a “policy decision” up to the administration.

There have been ongoing conversations between administration officials and social media platform executives on combating vaccine misinformation.

Wading into the ideological fight

Administration officials have been quick to tamp down on talk of federal vaccine mandates, suggesting it isn’t within their purview to require Americans to receive the shots. And over previous months, they have declined to engage with more extreme Republican lawmakers — including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — who have espoused falsehoods about the vaccine.

Now that vaccination rates have slowed, however, officials said the damaging effects of that kind of rhetoric had become clearer. Even the stark current reality being highlighted by officials — that nearly all hospitalizations and deaths are now among the unvaccinated — may not be enough to convince those who have already decided against it.

“I really don’t have a good explanation about why this is happening. I mean, it’s ideological rigidity, I think,” Fauci surmised during an appearance on CNN.

“Why are we having red states and places in the South that are very highly ideological in one way not wanting to get vaccinations? Vaccinations have nothing to do with politics. It’s a public health issue,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It doesn’t matter who you are. The virus doesn’t know whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican or an independent. For sure, we know that.”

Still, it remains unclear how much more the federal government can do to convince the still-hesitant to get shots.

Officials are preparing for regional outbreaks to persist over the coming months as large swaths of the population remain unvaccinated. Hoping to target the outbreaks, the White House said earlier this month it was deploying response teams to conduct surge testing, provide therapeutics like monoclonal antibodies and deploy federal personnel to areas that need support staff for vaccinations.

Officials expect the teams will help with everything from boosting testing, providing supplies and potentially increasing paid media efforts targeting regions where vaccinations are low. Still, while the response teams are being sent to prop up communities, officials believe vaccinations are the top way to stop the spread and recognize there could be a limit to their efforts.

In private meetings, Biden has questioned advisers about the broader impact the Delta variant could have on the US, according to people present in those meetings. He still receives a daily report on case rates, the number of deaths and the prevalence of variants. Officials have stressed that vaccinated people are safe, while those who are unvaccinated are the most at risk.

While they have declined to rule it out, officials do not currently expect Biden to set any more numerical goals when it comes to vaccinations, given the US has still not reached his last one and the pace of vaccinations has slowed significantly, according to people familiar with the discussions.

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