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Democrats face quandary on vaccine support as election nears

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 19, 2020

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., right, speaks next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., during a news conference about COVID-19 Thursday in Washington.  (Jacquelyn Martin)
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., right, speaks next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., during a news conference about COVID-19 Thursday in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin)
By Steve Peoples Associated Press

NEW YORK – President Donald Trump is escalating his promise for a coronavirus vaccine before Election Day.

But across America, Democrats, independents and even some Republicans do not trust his administration to produce a safe and effective vaccine on such an aggressive timeline. Such hesitancy threatens to exacerbate the public health risk for millions of Americans whenever a vaccine is released.

With the Nov. 3 election fast approaching, Democratic officials face a delicate political challenge.

Should they attack Trump’s vaccine claims too aggressively, Democrats risk further undermining public confidence in a possible lifesaving medicine while looking as though they are rooting against a potential cure. But if they don’t push back, it makes it easier for Trump to use the real or imagined prospect of a vaccine to boost his reelection campaign.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee demonstrated the Democrats’ balancing act on Friday when asked whether he would be willing to take a vaccine released by the administration before the election.

“If all the protocols had been followed and the evidence is in, of course, I’d follow science. It doesn’t matter when it happens,” Inslee said. “But I would have to look at the science, not Donald Trump. There isn’t one single thing I would ever trust from Donald Trump to be true.”

The focus on a speedy vaccine could be overshadowed by a sudden fight over the future of the Supreme Court in the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on Friday. But Inslee’s comments are in line with a growing consensus of Democrats in leadership positions, including presidential nominee Joe Biden.

They have repeatedly cast doubt on Trump’s promises but pledged to follow the guidance of scientists and health care experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist.

Trump restates his promise of an imminent vaccine almost daily. On Friday, he promised that 100 million doses of a still-unknown vaccine would be produced by the end of the year and there would be enough for all Americans by April.

“Three vaccines are already in the final stage,” Trump said at a briefing.

“Joe Biden’s anti-vaccine theories are putting a lot of lives at stake, and they’re only doing it for political reasons,” the president said from a White House podium. “It’s part of their war to discredit the vaccine now that they know we essentially have it. We’ll be announcing it fairly soon.”

The first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States just eight months ago. Health experts, including the administration’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief, believe a vaccine will require at least 12 to 18 months to create because of the extensive testing required to ensure it’s safe and effective.

The politics of the coronavirus vaccine are complicated.

Trump has suffered politically from the pandemic, which has devastated the global economy and killed nearly 200,000 Americans, more than triple the number of deaths he predicted in April. But six weeks before the Nov. 3 election, there is a broadening sense from voters that things have begun to move in the right direction – at least a little – even as experts warn that it’s too soon to believe the worst is over.

Four in 10 people now say the “worst is behind us” – the same number of people who say “the worst is yet to come,” according to a poll released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That was the most optimistic outlook reported by the think tank since the pandemic began. Around 75% believed the “worst is yet to come” in early April.

At the same time, most Americans worry that the political pressure from the administration will lead the Food and Drug Administration to rush to approve a coronavirus vaccine without making sure it’s safe and effective. That includes 85% of Democrats, 61% of independents and 35% of Republicans, according to Kaiser.

“At this point, nobody actually believes it will be ready before the election,” said Mollyann Brodie, who oversees public opinion research at Kaiser.

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