WASHINGTON — "A disservice to the country." "Inaccurate disinformation." "Literally killing people."
For months, the Biden White House refrained from criticizing Republican officials who played down the importance of coronavirus vaccinations or sought to make political hay of the federal government's all-out effort to drive shots into arms. Not any longer.
With the COVID-19 vaccination rate plateauing across the country, the White House is returning fire at those they see as spreading harmful misinformation or fear about the shots.
When South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster tried this week to block door-to-door efforts to drive up the vaccination rate in his state, White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not mince words in her reaction.
"The failure to provide accurate public health information, including the efficacy of vaccines and the accessibility of them to people across the country, including South Carolina, is literally killing people, so maybe they should consider that," she said Friday.
While 67% of American adults have gotten at least one dose, officials are increasingly worried about vast geographic disparity in vaccination rates, and the emergence of what some experts warn could be two dramatically different realities for the country in the coming months: High vaccine uptake and lower caseloads in more Democratic-leaning parts of the country, and fresh hot spots and the development of dangerous variants in more GOP-leaning areas.
In the early months of the administration, the White House largely declined to criticize state and local officials' handling of their vaccination programs, eager to maintain their buy-in and to prevent the politicization of the lifesaving campaign.
The recent change in tone comes after some GOP officials criticized President Joe Biden for calling for a door-to-door campaign to spread information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines in hopes it would encourage more people to get vaccinated.
"Now we need to go to community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and oftentimes, door-to-door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to the remaining people" who need to be vaccinated, Biden said Tuesday.
The grassroots component of the vaccination campaign has been in operation since April, when supplies of shots began outpacing demand. It was outlined and funded by Congress in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill passed in March and overwhelmingly is carried out by local officials and private sector workers and volunteers.
But some in the GOP saw a political opening, catering to the party's small-government roots and libertarian wing.
"The Biden Administration wants to knock on your door to see if you're vaccinated," tweeted Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. "What's next? Knocking on your door to see if you own a gun?"
McMaster asked his state's health department to bar state and local health groups from "the use of the Biden Administration's 'targeted' 'door to door' tactics."
"A South Carolinian's decision to get vaccinated is a personal one for them to make and not the government's," McMaster wrote in a letter to the department. "Enticing, coercing, intimidating, mandating, or pressuring anyone to take the vaccine is a bad policy which will deteriorate the public's trust and confidence in the State's vaccination efforts."
In Missouri, meanwhile, GOP Gov. Mike Parson tweeted: "I have directed our health department to let the federal government know that sending government employees or agents door-to-door to compel vaccination would NOT be an effective OR a welcome strategy in Missouri!"
Earlier in the week, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich sent a letter to Biden condemning the new strategy.
For the usually reserved Biden White House, which has long harbored private frustrations about some states' laggard vaccination programs but refused to condemn them publicly for fear of playing up political divides in public health, it was a bridge too far.
"For those individuals, organizations that are feeding misinformation and trying to mischaracterize this type of trusted-messenger work, I believe you are doing a disservice to the country and to the doctors, the faith leaders, community leaders and others who are working to get people vaccinated, save lives and help end this pandemic," White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said Thursday.
Months ago, the Biden White House refrained from responding when officials criticized its vaccine allocation strategy of sending more doses directly to pharmacies instead of through state health departments after the former strategy proved more effective. It largely kept quiet as it watched officials sow fears of vaccine "passports" and assiduously avoided engaging publicly with fringe lawmakers who promoted vaccine skepticism.
The new public expression of frustration comes amid lingering disbelief that tens of millions of Americans continue to refuse to get vaccinated, needlessly extending the pandemic and costing lives, as government health officials emphasize that nearly all serious cases and deaths are now preventable.
White House officials are quick to point out that their criticism is not related to the officials' political affiliation but to their rhetoric. They credit effective communication and leadership on the vaccines by GOP officials including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. But they continue to be concerned that some GOP officials are seeking to boost their own fortunes by feeding into doubts about the vaccination.
Psaki on Thursday rebutted some allegations about the door-knocking program, noting that in most cases: "They are not members of the government. They are not federal government employees. They are volunteers. They are clergy. They are trusted voices in communities who are playing this role and door knocking."
Acknowledging the rhetoric has been "a bit frustrating to us," she also noted that there are indications the door-knocking has helped promote shots in areas lagging behind the rest of the country. "Alabama: The adult vaccination rate increased by 3.9%; 149,000 additional adults got their first dose in June," she said, adding that Florida saw an increase of 4.4% and Georgia of 3.5%.
"This is important work that's leading to more vaccinations," said Zients, "and it's done by people who care about the health of their family, friends and neighbors."