Back in mid-2021, when it was clear that conservatives were mobilizing against the Covid vaccines, I remember asking a prominent doctors’ group if they were worried that their attacks on the new shots would undermine confidence in routine childhood vaccinations—the kind that prevents potentially deadly, contagious childhood diseases like measles, polio, and whooping cough. They reassured me that parents’ skepticism was limited to Covid vaccines—which made sense because those shots were still new and these others had been around for decades. The rest of the immunizations were still just as popular as ever. Phew.
That was then.
Today, just two and a half years later, the situation appears to have shifted. The percentage of kindergartners who are fully vaccinated declined from 95 percent in the 2020-2021 school year to 93 percent in 2021-2022—below pre-pandemic levels. Since schools still require routine vaccinations, more families than ever before are asking permission for their school-aged children to skip the shots, as well. Requests for exemptions increased in 41 states, and in 10 states, more than 5 percent of parents made such requests. That exemption rate is significant, because when more than 5 percent of a given population is unwilling to be vaccinated, “herd immunity” is compromised and outbreaks are possible. That was the news last week from the Centers for Disease Control, which tracks rates of childhood immunization every year.
This latest development is no random statistical blip—actually, I’ve been dreading it for a while now. What started as a campaign by a small group of influencers who exist in the nexus of wellness culture and rightwing politics has entered the national conversation as a major talking point of powerful conservative politicians.
As a reporter who has been covering vaccine hesitancy for a decade, I’ve documented the alarming rise in misinformation about immunizations since the onset of the pandemic. In 2020, California naturopath and anti-vaccine activist Larry Cook explained in a video on his website, Medical Freedom Patriots, how his thinking evolved on spreading his anti-vaccine message since the days when skepticism around vaccines was thought to be a quirk of the natural-lifestyle corner of the far left. “The Democrats are actually the ones pushing the vaccine mandate agenda,” he said. “I am of the opinion that now, especially with Covid-19, the Republican elected officials are going to get hit really, really, really hard to capitulate to vaccine mandates.” He explained that his “target demographic” was “pro-Republican,” “pro-President Trump,” and “QAnon friendly.” Cook had hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook before Meta removed his account in 2020 for violating its misinformation policy. Even before the release of the lifesaving Covid vaccines in 2021, influencers were laying the groundwork for widespread confusion, posting in parents’ groups about the supposed dangers of vaccines—along with the pedophilia-obsessed QAnon conspiracy theory that preyed on parents’ myriad anxieties about their children.
That year, the nascent conservative antipathy toward Covid vaccines collided with the burgeoning parents’ rights movement, which railed against school closures and mask mandates, and then against racially diverse and LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, books, and programming. Last year, at the inaugural summit of the influential parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty, I watched Florida governor Ron DeSantis crow to the crowd about his anti-vax credentials. He said he had heard that families were moving to Florida because they were worried their states would require children to be vaccinated against Covid in order to attend school. “It’s very important that we were not allowing government to come in and force that on people,” he said. The moms went wild with approval.
Since then, DeSantis, now a presidential hopeful, has repeatedly disparaged Covid vaccines in order to position himself to the right of Donald Trump on the campaign trail. “They lied to us about the mRNA shots,” he told a crowd in a speech last year. “They said, ‘If you take it, you will not get Covid.’”
Not to be outdone, Trump, who previously held up Covid vaccines as one of his administration’s greatest accomplishments, now falsely accuses DeSantis of having mandated Covid vaccines in Florida. “Florida sort of had a mandate because they were giving the vaccine, they were demanding everybody take the vaccine,” Trump told former Fox News host Megyn Kelly in September.
Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who has been joining DeSantis on the campaign trail, has built his political career on unsubstantiated claims about Covid vaccines. Last year, Ladapo falsely informed Floridians that Covid vaccines were dangerous for children; this year he upped the ante, recommending against the latest Covid boosters for anyone under age 65—this guidance stands in stark contrast to medical consensus.
DeSantis and his administration’s anti-vaccine efforts have influenced the thinking of Floridians. Just 53 percent of Florida Republicans plan to get the new Covid booster, according to a poll conducted in September by the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University. One in four people surveyed said they believed the shots alter DNA. Last year, the statewide vaccination rate for two-year-olds was a meager 81 percent—down from 93 percent in 2020.
No discussion of the mainstreaming of vaccine hesitancy could be complete without mention of another presidential candidate: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who traffics in vaccine misinformation along with his famous family name. Kennedy, who founded the anti-vaccine advocacy group Children’s Health Defense, somehow over the last decade has been transformed from an effective environmental crusader into a full-blown vaccine conspiracy theorist. He loudly and frequently repeats the discredited claim that vaccines cause autism. “I see somebody on a hiking trail carrying a little baby and I say to him, better not get them vaccinated,” he said in a 2021 podcast. Kennedy’s group seems especially intent on eroding vaccine confidence in the Black community. In 2021, Children’s Health Defense released a movie called Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, which inaccurately claims that Black children have more robust immune responses and that they are therefore being “overdosed” with certain vaccines.
As unlikely as it is that DeSantis or Kennedy will be our next president, the nation’s declining vaccination rates nonetheless show that the damage they have inflicted on public health in the United States will likely far outlast their presidential ambitions. Last year, I talked to Florida pediatrician Mobeen Rathore, who had worked on a highly successful campaign in the early aughts to raise the state’s abysmal childhood vaccination rates. They eventually managed to raise the rates among two-year-olds from 77 percent in 2002 to 98 percent in 2019, so he was dismayed to see his hard work being undermined by a few power-hungry politicians. “Of all the things that government mandates, [childhood vaccines are] the simplest, and the most useful one,” he told me. “I just don’t know why we have to politicize healthcare, especially for children.”