WASHINGTON — As the coronavirus surges in their states and districts, fanned by a more contagious variant exploiting paltry vaccination rates, many congressional Republicans have declined to push back against vaccine skeptics in their party who are sowing mistrust about the shots’ safety and effectiveness.
Amid a widening partisan divide over coronavirus vaccination, most Republicans have either stoked or ignored the flood of misinformation reaching their constituents and instead focused their message about the vaccine on disparaging President Biden, characterizing his drive to inoculate Americans as politically motivated and heavy-handed.
On Tuesday, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican who said he had received his first Pfizer vaccine shot only on Sunday, blamed the hesitance on Mr. Biden and his criticism of Donald J. Trump’s vaccine drive last year. Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, said skeptics would not get their shots until “this administration acknowledges the efforts of the last one.”
And Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas pointed the finger at the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.
“Every time Jen Psaki opens her mouth or Dr. Fauci opens his mouth,” he said, “10,000 more people say I’m never going to take the vaccine.”
Some elected Republicans are the ones spreading the falsehoods. Representative Jason Smith of Missouri, a Senate candidate, warned on Twitter of “KGB-style” agents knocking on the doors of unvaccinated Americans — a reference to Mr. Biden’s door-to-door vaccine outreach campaign.
Such statements, and the widespread silence by Republicans in the face of vaccine skepticism, are beginning to alarm some strategists and party leaders.
“The way to avoid getting back into the hospital is to get vaccinated,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a polio survivor, pleaded on Tuesday, one of the few members of his party to take a different approach. “And I want to encourage everybody to do that and to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”
Nationally, the average of new coronavirus infections has surged nearly 200 percent in 14 days, to more than 35,000 on Monday, and deaths — a lagging number — are up 44 percent from two weeks ago. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated on Tuesday that the Delta variant accounted for 83 percent of all new cases.
The political disparity in vaccine hesitancy is stark. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported at the end of June that 86 percent of Democrats had at least one shot, compared with 52 percent of Republicans. An analysis by The New York Times in April found that the least vaccinated counties in the country had one thing in common: They voted for Mr. Trump.
“There’s a big gap, and it’s growing,” said Jen Kates, a senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “We know that more of the unvaccinated are self-identified Republicans, so they are much more at risk of illness, death and continued spread than fully vaccinated people.”
Conservative swaths of the country are being hit particularly hard. Intensive care units in southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas are filled or filling fast, while 40 percent of new cases are cropping up in Florida.
At the Capitol on Tuesday, where a vaccinated aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi tested positive for the coronavirus, the in-house physician warned lawmakers and staff members that the Delta variant is now present. He begged unvaccinated lawmakers to get their shots, and warned that a mask mandate may have to be reimposed.
Amid those troubling trends, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia was suspended from Twitter temporarily for writing that Covid-19 was not dangerous for people unless they were obese or over age 65. On Tuesday, she refused to answer a reporter’s question about whether she had been vaccinated, calling it a violation of the federal law governing the privacy of health care information. (The law does not bar an individual from speaking about her own medical status, or prohibit anyone from inquiring.)
Representative Madison Cawthorn, Republican of North Carolina, suggested that the Biden administration’s door-knocking effort was just a first step. Next, he said in an interview with Right Side Broadcasting Network, they would “go door to door to take your guns.”
“They could then go door to door to take your Bibles,” he added.
Yet many leading Republicans are paying little heed to the resurgence. At a hearing before the Senate health committee, there was scant mention among Republicans about how to confront vaccine hesitancy, save for the comments of Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who lamented “spurious conspiracy theories” and wondered whether “enemies of our country” were putting out misinformation.
At a news conference by House Republican leaders on Tuesday, the coronavirus was nowhere to be heard amid the “crises” of inflation, the southwestern border and out-of-control spending by the “socialist” Democrats.
Even those lawmakers who expressed concern said there was little politicians could do.
“I’m tracking it daily, and it’s not good,” said Senator Josh Hawley, whose home state, Missouri, is now a Covid hot spot. But he flatly ruled out mandates to get more Missourians inoculated, saying it would only backfire with conservative voters.
“Where you run into problems is where they say, ‘You must do the following,’” Mr. Hawley said. “That is why the president’s language about going door to door is so alarming to people that it has the opposite effect.”
Mr. Marshall, a physician who organized other elected Republican doctors to encourage constituents to get vaccinated, concluded that “there’s nothing that anyone can say up here that’s going to convince somebody to take the vaccine.”
Off Capitol Hill, some conservatives have become considerably more forceful. Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox, accused conservative “talking heads” of “literally killing their supporters” with their vaccine skepticism.
The conservative personality Sean Hannity told viewers on Monday night to take the virus seriously and get vaccinated. Steve Doocy, the co-host of Mr. Trump’s favorite news program, “Fox & Friends,” had a similar message on Tuesday morning.
But the messages on Fox remain mixed, as do the Republican Party’s.
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky and a doctor, is trying to change the subject. At Tuesday’s health committee hearing, he escalated his long-running attacks on Dr. Fauci over whether the National Institutes of Health funded “gain of function” research — experiments devised to identify genetic mutations that could make a virus more powerful — at a laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began.
Mr. Paul accused Dr. Fauci of lying to Congress when he testified in May that the N.I.H. did not fund such work. Dr. Fauci shot back that he was not lying, and accused the senator of spreading falsehoods by implying American scientists were to blame for the pandemic.
Mr. Marshall used the hearing to raise questions about whether children should be vaccinated. He said afterward that he would encourage anybody over 50 to get the vaccine, but added that there were “pluses and minuses” for anyone younger than that, directly contradicting guidance from the C.D.C., which has said everyone over 12 should be vaccinated.
The senator added that those not yet vaccinated should get tested to see if they had antibodies from a previous infection, and if they did, they might not need a shot. That, too, goes against the C.D.C., which recommends vaccination for those who have recovered from Covid-19.
But Republican concerns are still focused mainly on the tactics of those trying to get more people inoculated.
“You’re seeing some people try to bully people into doing things instead of just encouraging them,” Mr. Scalise said. “There’s even talk of putting mask mandates back on people in certain states when the vaccine is widely available, it’s safe and effective.
“We should be encouraging people to get it,” he added, “but not trying to threaten people.”