Two of the Trump administration’s top medical experts tried to prop up shaky public confidence in a COVID-19 vaccine at a Senate hearing Wednesday amid questions of political interference in this campaign year.
“We have unprecedented levels of vaccine hesitancy in our country and globally,” said Surgeon General Jerome Adams, appearing with National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “I think it’s also important to understand we have a once-in-a-century pandemic superimposed on top of a presidential election, and that’s made messaging even more difficult and concerning.
“Here’s what I can tell you as a member of the coronavirus task force: There’s been no politicization of the vaccine process whatsoever,” Adams continued.
Neither would comment on whether the president’s politicized comments about a vaccine — including promising one by the end of October, despite a lack of clinical trial evidence so far, and accusing “deep state” actors at the Food and Drug Administration of slow-walking the process — could hurt vaccination rates.
Ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked if Adams would challenge the president not to interfere in the process or spread misinformation.
“We need vaccine confidence. That’s really important. And political interference can be a huge detriment to that, and so can misinformation. Are you making sure the president understands that risk?” Murray asked.
“I’m using my bully pulpit as surgeon general to make sure the entire country knows that vaccines are safe and effective,” Adams said, not answering the question directly.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., picked up Murray’s line of questioning later in the hearing. Warren cited recent polling by CBS suggesting just 21 percent of Americans would get a free COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one is available.
“Let me ask, do the president’s actions encourage public trust in vaccines and make people more likely to get the vaccine, or do they discourage Americans from getting vaccinated for COVID-19?” Warren asked Collins.
“I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. I’m more focused on what we can do in the scientific community to try to explain how these decisions get made,” Collins said.
Warren pressed again.
“The president has implicitly tied vaccine development to his reelection campaign. If Americans who are watching all of this hesitate to take the vaccine because of what he has done, does that help us get to the levels we need to be able to create herd immunity?” Warren asked.
“I just hope Americans will choose to take the information they need from scientists and physicians and not from politicians,” Collins said.
Democratic lawmakers and some immunization experts worry that a vaccine could be authorized or approved prematurely to help the president’s reelection chances.
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, whose agency has the authority to license or authorize a vaccine, was not invited to the hearing by the Republican-controlled committee. Hahn will appear before the committee in two weeks on Sept. 23.
Public awareness efforts
Low demand for a COVID-19 vaccine could be among the biggest challenges for achieving herd immunity.
The Trump administration has directed billions in public dollars to supporting clinical trials, manufacturing and securing U.S. doses, and it has begun work on a distribution plan with state public health departments. But there has not yet been the same level of investment in a public awareness campaign to encourage vaccination and counter anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
Adams said he was working with faith leaders and social media influencers, including celebrities like Kylie Jenner, to promote a COVID-19 vaccine if one becomes available.
The Office of Minority Health and Morehouse College will also work to encourage Black Americans to get a vaccine, Adams said.
The Trump administration appears to have diminished the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which typically conducts public health communications campaigns.
The hearing falls shortly before flu season, when many epidemiologists predict there will be another wave of overrun emergency rooms.
“Indications from south of the equator suggest a lighter flu season, but nobody knows for sure, especially in parts of the U.S. where COVID is still spreading widely in the community,” said Leonard Mermel, medical director of the epidemiology department at Rhode Island Hospital. “If there’s not good compliance with wearing masks and staying home while sick, in part due to poor leadership who don’t promulgate good infection prevention practice, then those communities may have hospitals that are stretched to capacity.”
Adams said at the hearing that everyone should aim to get a flu shot by Halloween.
“Get your flu shot, everybody,” Collins agreed.