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Politics Chat: Vaccine Rollout Measure Focus On Changing Hesitant People's Minds

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Here in the U.S., the threat COVID-19 poses is receding. Now, let's be explicit about that. The disease is still a serious one and deadly among the most vulnerable, but new cases in the U.S. are down nearly 30% over the past two weeks as Americans continue to get vaccinated. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith peeked in on a vaccine focus group, and she joins us now. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is interesting. It was a panel of so-called vaccine-hesitant people. Tell me why you were observing it.

KEITH: Yeah. So this was a focus group organized by Frank Luntz. He's the longtime Republican messaging guru. And it was all people who had been hesitant or resistant to getting a COVID vaccine who ultimately changed their minds. And the goal for Luntz was to figure out what messages would work on other people like them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's very important. What did you hear?

KEITH: Yeah. They came from a wide range of backgrounds and political ideologies. They fought with each other during the focus group. But their fears and distrust, it came from different places, but the fear was similar. In the end, their decisions were all deeply personal. But there were a couple of themes that emerged. They reached a point where, in their mind, the positives outweighed the negatives, or at least their fears of the negatives. And it really came down to trusted voices. You'll hear Luntz here first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK LUNTZ: Victor (ph) from Michigan, I know who you don't trust. Who do you trust when it comes to information on the vaccine?

VICTOR: My doctor.

LUNTZ: Why your doctor?

VICTOR: Because he is the one who knows all of my health issues.

KEITH: Luntz asked a woman named Marie (ph) from New York what President Biden should be doing to convince people to get vaccinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIE: Tell stories about people - about how safe it is, about - the way the doctors explain it. My doctor made me feel more comfortable getting it also because I trust him. If you hear from somebody they you trust about it, it makes you more comfortable with it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this challenge of this vaccination program was, first, to get a vaccine, which the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed helped do. Then it was distribution, which the Biden administration championed, and now the hurdle, this phase, seems to be convincing enough Americans to get the shots. So what policy lesson does this group have?

KEITH: Yeah. At this point, there are at least two broad categories of people who haven't yet been vaccinated - people with access issues where it's been hard to get an appointment or to find time just to get it done. And the administration has launched a new system where people can text their zip code to a number that spells out GETVAX, and they will get a text back telling them where they can go. Supply has really caught up with demand at this point.

And then there's this other group, people with concerns. And for those people, like the ones in this focus group, a clear message is that people's doctors and pharmacists can be incredibly persuasive. And the Biden administration is actually working to get doses directly into primary care physicians' offices so that if someone decides they're ready right then, there at that moment, they can just roll up their sleeves and get it over with. But that is most certainly still a work in progress.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand you're going to have more on that tomorrow on All Things Considered, so we should all tune in for that. But while I still have you here on WEEKEND EDITION, just quickly, President Biden is on the road to Yorktown, Va., tomorrow to talk about the education part of his economic plan. What is his sales pitch going to sound like?

KEITH: Right. And the first lady will be with him. She is a community college professor. They are pitching four more years of free public education, universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds and two years of community college after high school. It's part of the American Families Plan, talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. And the question becomes, how do you pitch that? How do you get Congress to go along? They're at least trying to get the public on board.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.