Harris emerges as leading voice fighting vaccine hesitancy

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Registered Nurse Patricia Cummings administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Kamala Harris at the United Medical Center on Dec. 29, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

SAMUEL CORUM/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

BY MICHAEL WILNER AND FRANCESCA CHAMBERS
MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU/TNS

WASHINGTON — When White House aides were deciding where in Florida Vice President Kamala Harris should travel this week to promote coronavirus vaccines, they looked at the numbers.

The federal government set up four mass COVID-19 vaccination sites across the state last month. The site in Miami has been mired in confusion, with rules frequently shifting in order for officials to fill capacity, but the site has managed to give out most of its doses.

By contrast, the site in Jacksonville has been consistently underutilized, administering only 21,047 shots out of a capacity of 54,000 over the last two and a half weeks.

Part of the reason that White House aides chose the Jacksonville site was to boost turnout there, an administration official said, comparing the visit to a high-level surrogate making a targeted stop on the campaign trail.

White House officials are hoping that Harris could serve as a trusted messenger across the country to underserved communities skeptical of vaccines going forward. The Jacksonville stop could become a model for future trips, as Biden’s vaccination drive switches from a focus on supply shortages to questions over hesitancy, the official said.

“Our Florida sites are doing great work and the VP’s visit [Monday] only underscored that work,” Symone Sanders, spokeswoman for the vice president, said in an email.

Vaccine promotion

Harris has become a visible part of the White House’s vaccine promotional campaign as she continues to define her role as vice president. So far, she has mostly shied away from carving out a specific set of policy issues to focus on.

The Jacksonville site is paired with a mobile unit that has been changing locations every three or four days, traveling to high-risk, low-mobility communities. State and local authorities are responsible for conducting outreach to encourage appointments, the administration official added.

The visit was not Harris’ first stop to a vaccine distribution site. In Washington, D.C., Harris visited a local pharmacy that’s part of the federal retail pharmacy vaccination program to stress the importance of those in communities of color taking the vaccines.

She is also scheduled to visit New Haven, Connecticut, on Friday as part of the Biden administration’s tour to promote the passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. New Haven is expecting a federal mobile vaccination site to arrive in the coming days that would bring Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses to its underserved communities.

Speaking with civil rights activist Al Sharpton last month on the issue, the vice president highlighted the impact of the pandemic on Black-owned businesses. And earlier this month, she participated in an interview with a local Chicago radio show to discuss vaccine skepticism.

“It is literally killing the community at highly disproportionate rates,” Harris told WBEZ Chicago. “The suffering, the grief, is immeasurable, not to mention the economic impact and the educational impact it is disproportionately having on the Black community.”

Mixed messages

Republicans have accused Harris of undermining confidence in COVID-19 vaccines. She indicated during the 2020 campaign that it would take “a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability” for her to feel comfortable taking the vaccine while then-President Donald Trump was in charge.

Harris received her second dose of the Moderna vaccine in January and has repeatedly urged the public to take the vaccine when it is their turn.

“I think the community saw that as honest, and that somebody who had a voice was expressing something they were feeling and saying and that they felt nobody was listening to,” said Debra Fraser-Howze, the founder of the nonprofit group Choose Healthy Life. “So, I’m glad she said it. Because it made us more embrace her, to understand her empathy for what we were feeling at that moment.”

Choose Healthy Life is working with Black clergy to educate the Black community about COVID-19, and the Biden White House has consulted Fraser-Howze on the issue.

“The fact her actions then allowed her to go take it, I think helped a lot of Black people come to the table and take it,” Fraser-Howze said of Harris.

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