(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden’s push to enlist volunteers, including local doctors and pastors, to go “literally knocking on doors” to encourage vaccinations in some states sparked an outcry this week among conservatives, who mischaracterized the effort as the deployment of government agents to strong-arm reluctant Americans.
The blowback — from right-wing media and Republican politicians on Twitter — prompted a sharp response Thursday from the White House, which says any door-knocking efforts will be locally led by community volunteers.
“I would say, 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,” Biden’s COVID coordinator, Jeff Zients, said.
Earlier this week, after missing his own goal to ensure 70% of U.S. adults received at least shot by the Fourth of July, Biden called for a stepped-up vaccination strategy that would rely on volunteers like faith leaders, local medical professionals and community organizations to canvas neighborhoods.
He also promised to assign White House-coordinated “surge teams” to any states requesting help, including personnel to help track outbreaks, boost testing or tailor pro-vaccine messages to the public.
“We need to go to community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood and, often times, door-to-door, literally knocking on doors to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus,” Biden said.
The comment was swiftly picked up by conservative pundits and outlets suggesting that federal agents would soon be knocking on doors or mandating a vaccine.
“How about don’t knock on my door,” tweeted Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican. “You’re not my parents. You’re the government. Make the vaccine available, and let people be free to choose. Why is that concept so hard for the left?”
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted: “The Biden Administration wants to knock on your door to see if you’re vaccinated. What’s next? Knocking on your door to see if you own a gun?”
The Biden administration has said repeatedly that the federal government won’t mandate vaccines and will leave it up to businesses and schools to decide.
“It’s up to every individual to decide whether they’re going to get vaccinated,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki this week.
Still, that message was muddied Thursday when Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told CNN in an interview that “it is absolutely the government’s business” to know who isn’t vaccinated because of the money spent on the effort. He later added: “You don’t have to answer the door but I hope you do.”
Becerra later tweeted that his comments were being taken “wildly out of context.”
“To be clear: government has no database tracking who is vaccinated,” Becerra said. “We’re encouraging people to step up to protect themselves, others by getting vaccinated. It’s the best way to save lives and end this pandemic.”
In Missouri — one of the first states to receive help from the federal “surge” teams that Biden promised — the Republican governor there tweeted that government “agents” going door-to-door aren’t welcome.
“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!”
But according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity, federal door knockers were never planned. At the request of the state’s health department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deployed an epidemiologist to Missouri on Monday to help with genetic sequencing and data analysis through Aug. 6.
Another CDC official – a “risk communication specialist” – was tasked to provide remote support for one month to the Missouri Chief Bureau of Immunizations to help address local vaccine hesitancy and drive up vaccination numbers.
In a statement, the Missouri health department said it hoped more support was on its way.
“We are looking forward to collaborating with them and learning more about how the Delta variant is impacting Missouri, specifically southwest Missouri initially,” the department said in a statement.
“More team members will be added in the coming weeks, both remotely and in person, to assist with data and research, vaccine uptake strategies and outreach,” the department added.
ABC producer Arielle Mitropoulos and Sasha Pezenik contributed to this report.
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