On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did what he has been doing for seven months: he called on Americans to get vaccinated for Covid-19.
McConnell warned that “these shots need to get in everybody’s arm as rapidly as possible or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don’t yearn for, that we went through last year.”
McConnell noted that he is a victim of polio, for which a vaccine took decades to develop, and said, “It never occurred to me, after three highly effective vaccines were developed in under a year, that we’d have difficulty getting Americans to take the shots. But that’s obviously where we are.”
McConnell was then asked if he would speak out against people who are speaking out against Covid-19 vaccinations.
He responded that he couldn’t be any clearer on this subject, since he has been “saying the same thing about vaccinations all along the way,” and said that others can say “whatever they choose.” But he added that vaccination is the way to avoid being hospitalized for Covid-19, and that Americans should “ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”
McConnell’s remarks made headlines. They also prompted baseless suggestions that these remarks were a significant shift from his previous rhetoric.
“Is it surprising that a dip in the stock market is what it took for McConnell, (Fox News host Sean) Hannity et al to get serious about #COVID19 vaccines?” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, wrote on Twitter, where he has more than 1 million followers.
Rex Chapman, a former NBA player from McConnell’s state of Kentucky, who is now a prolific Twitter personality with more than 1.1 million followers, tweeted: “This dude didn’t wear a mask publicly for MONTHS AND MONTHS while the former guy was in office. He went right along with whatever the former guy said and did with regard to COVID. He knew all of this…then. So why now? This man is a misinformation scourge…”
In fact, the misinformation here was coming from Swalwell and Chapman.
Some other conservatives have this week taken different public positions on Covid-19 vaccinations than they did in the past. For example, a high-ranking House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise, announced he had just received his first shot, citing the risk of the Delta variant.
But McConnell was being entirely consistent.
Facts First: Swalwell was wrong to suggest that McConnell’s rhetoric on Covid-19 suddenly shifted after the Monday stock market dip. Since December, McConnell has made numerous similar public remarks urging Americans to get vaccinated. And Chapman was wrong to claim that McConnell went months during Donald Trump’s presidency without wearing a mask in public. McConnell was photographed wearing a mask in public in April 2020, the same month the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending that people do so, and soon became a vocal advocate for mask use.
McConnell on Covid-19 vaccines
We don’t know precisely what Swalwell meant when he claimed that McConnell had only this week gotten “serious” about Covid-19 vaccines. A Swalwell spokeswoman did not respond to requests for an explanation on Wednesday.
It’s clear that McConnell has been plenty serious about the Covid-19 vaccines since they have been available. Here’s a partial accounting of McConnell’s numerous pro-vaccination remarks.
On December 17, McConnell issued a statement in which he announced he would soon get vaccinated. He said: “The only way to beat this pandemic is for us to follow the advice of our nation’s health care professionals: get vaccinated and continue to follow CDC guidelines. As a polio survivor, I know both the fear of a disease and the extraordinary promise of hope that vaccines bring. I truly hope all Kentuckians and Americans will heed this advice and accept this safe and effective vaccine.”
The next day, McConnell tweeted a photo of himself in a face mask, holding his vaccination card. He tweeted: “Just received the safe, effective COVID vaccine following continuity-of-government protocols. Vaccines are how we beat this virus.”
And the day after that, McConnell delivered a pro-vaccine message on the Senate floor, saying, “These vaccines are safe. They are effective. They are our nation’s path out of this hellish chapter.”
In late March 2021, McConnell appeared at a vaccination site in his home state of Kentucky and said there is “no good argument not to get the vaccination.” Asked what he can say to help convince Republican men to get vaccinated, he said, “I can say as a Republican man, as soon as it was my turn, I took the vaccine. I would encourage all Republican men to do that.”
The day after that, during a visit to a vaccine distribution facility in Kentucky, McConnell repeated his pitch to Republican men and called it a “modern medical miracle that three effective vaccines were produced in less than one year.” McConnell made another appeal to Republican men during a visit to a Kentucky vaccination facility in early April, saying “we need to take this vaccine” and that “reservations need to be put aside.” The Biden White House publicly thanked McConnell for his remarks.
Later in April, McConnell authored a pro-vaccination op-ed article that appeared in Kentucky publications. He wrote: “These doses are filled with hope and optimism, and I urge every eligible Kentuckian to get their shot as soon as possible.”
McConnell promoted the vaccines once more during a Kentucky visit in May. And in June, asked by a reporter at a Kentucky event what he would say to people who are not taking the shot, he said, “Take it. I’m a big fan of vaccines.” He called the vaccines “highly effective” and, again, a “modern medical miracle,” and he said he encouraged “everyone, everyone, to get the vaccine.”
Last week, McConnell told CNN congressional correspondent Lauren Fox: “It is discouraging that so many people remain unvaccinated. I am a big fan of vaccinations. I had a personal experience with that in my own life and it is pretty clear from all the evidence that if you get the disease, you are much more likely to survive it if you get vaccinated.” He added, “I think we just have to keep preaching that and try to get people to understand the importance of it, and for whatever audience I may have, I am going to keep talking about it.”
All of these comments came before the Dow experienced its biggest drop of the year on Monday before rebounding on Tuesday. And again, this is not even a complete list of McConnell’s pro-vaccination comments.
People are free to argue that McConnell should have done more to denounce anti-vaccine misinformation from right-wing media or to pressure members of his own party who have promoted such misinformation. But the notion that McConnell has suddenly flip-flopped on the subject, or wasn’t “serious” until Tuesday, is unfounded.
McConnell and masks
Chapman claimed that McConnell “didn’t wear a mask publicly for MONTHS AND MONTHS while the former guy was in office,” using “the former guy” to refer to Trump. But that’s just not true.
McConnell regularly wore a mask in public during the Trump era, though he regularly took it off when making public remarks. And starting in May 2020, the month after the CDC began recommending public mask-wearing, McConnell was a vocal promoter of masks even as some other Republicans scoffed at them.
He said in May 2020 that “there’s no stigma attached to wearing a mask.” In June, he added, “Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter.”
In July, he said he wouldn’t involve himself in a Kentucky battle over the governor’s power to mandate masks in public, but he continued, “But I’m here to tell you, put it on. The single best way all of us can be responsible to ourselves and sensitive to the health of others is to wear a mask and to practice social distancing.” That month, the Associated Press called him the Republican Party’s “mask spokesman.”
McConnell could certainly have been a harsher critic of Trump’s own approach to the virus, but it’s also not true that he simply went along with everything Trump said and did. McConnell said in early October that he had not visited the Trump White House since August 6 because of the lack of mask-wearing and social distancing there.
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