Sen. Kevin Cramer this week would not disclose his COVID vaccination status, staking out a small-government political position on vaccines.
“Out of respect for the North Dakotans who value their liberty and privacy, I will not be detailing the specifics of my vaccination status,” Cramer said. “And while I respect the right of private businesses to make certain health-based decisions which they deem appropriate, I oppose the idea of a government-created ‘vaccine passport.’”
Just one month ago, the North Dakota Republican said “anyone who wants should get one,” and his office said Cramer was soon expected to receive either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. But refusal to confirm as much stands in contrast to months of photo-ops and encouragement from various politicians and celebrities, all aimed at boosting vaccine distribution. As of Wednesday morning, April 28, 29% of the nation is fully vaccinated .
Cramer’s comments indicate the political divide that public health officials must bridge to ensure the U.S. distribution of vaccines — a rift that first appeared in debates over business closures, continued into masks and now is revealing itself in how leaders approach a critical, final stage of the pandemic.
According to a Pew Research survey released in March, Democrats said they were much more willing to get vaccinated than Republicans, with 83% saying they had already gotten a shot or planned to get one, compared to 56% of GOP respondents. Since then, recent polling has found that the divide has narrowed — but still persists.
That divide appears to be reflected in how politicians across North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota now talk about vaccines. The Grand Forks Herald asked governors, senators and select representatives in those three states if they’d been vaccinated and what their messages are to people hesitating to get a jab.
The Herald reached out to 13 politicians’ offices. Of the 10 that responded, nine had been vaccinated.
Talk to your doctor
For some leaders, there’s no question of what Americans should do. The office of Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said she’s been fully immunized with the Pfizer vaccine, and encouraged everyone to get a shot.
“I was glad to be able to get the vaccine, and my message to Minnesotans is simple: Get vaccinated as soon as you’re eligible no matter which FDA-authorized vaccine you are administered,” Smith said in a statement provided by her office. “They are all safe and effective.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., took a similar approach, encouraging “everyone to follow health guidance and get vaccinated.”
Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., and Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., both took a notable approach, tracing the vaccine program’s success through former President Donald Trump’s administration.
And Fischbach suggested that “all who want a vaccine” should get one. That’s an important distinction, separating small-government, often pro-Trump leaders from those encouraging shots en masse.
“Operation Warp Speed, led by the Trump Administration, delivered not one, but three safe and effective vaccines in record time,” a spokesperson for Fischbach wrote in an email. “We are now seeing widespread vaccine access across the country, and Rep. Fischbach encourages all who want a vaccine to get one.”
The representatives’ offices said Fischbach and Johnson have been vaccinated.
Perhaps the most common refrain, though, is that Americans talk to their doctor about the vaccine. Polling shows doctors hold more sway dispelling vaccine hesitancy among Trump voters than the former president himself does. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, mentioned speaking with a health care provider.
“As more vaccines arrive in Minnesota, I encourage everyone to roll up their sleeves and get their shot,” Walz, who was vaccinated in March, said in a statement provided by office. “Minnesotans who have questions should talk to their doctor for the most reliable information.”
Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, both of whom are North Dakota Republicans, also encouraged people to talk to their doctor. The same goes for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican who, like Armstrong and Hoeven, was vaccinated earlier this year.
“The governor encourages eligible North Dakotans to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their loved ones and their communities,” a spokesman from Burgum’s office said in an email. “If individuals have questions about the safety or efficacy of the vaccine and whether it’s right for them, they should discuss it with their medical provider.”
The offices of Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, Republicans from South Dakota, did not fulfill requests for comment. Neither did the office of Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn.
However, Thune, in a March 31 post on his Instagram account, is shown giving a thumbs-up signal as he watches a South Dakota resident getting vaccinated. In the post, Thune said it is “such a hopeful sign that things are going to get back to normal soon.”
‘Choose’ to get vaccinated
No matter how leaders pitch vaccines to Americans, there’s no avoiding that COVID shots are deeply entwined with the politics of the pandemic, which has seen big debate over the use of masks, the shuttering of schools and the like.
A spokesman with the office of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, said she received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday. A spokesman sent a video from March in which Noem announced vaccines would soon be widely available. It captures the spirit of her approach to the pandemic — refusing to order businesses closed or to require masks in public.
And that same spirit carries into her stance on vaccines, which echoes Sen. Cramer’s hands-off, small-government philosophy. It’s a tack that appears popular with conservative rural voters — if one that will keep debate over exactly how to end the pandemic raging.
“I want to take this opportunity and invite you to choose to get your free COVID-19 shot as soon as possible,” Noem said in March. “And no, there will not be the heavy hand of government mandating that you get the vaccine. Instead, we will do what we always do: we'll trust our people to do the right thing.”