On March 15, Tennessee talk radio host Dan Mandis explained why he was reluctant to get vaccinated against COVID-19: “If people want to get the vaccine, knock yourselves out. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet, to be perfectly candid.” Mandis continued, “But there is plenty of reason to be skeptical about this whole thing, from the lockdowns to the masks to the manipulation of the data. But now we’re talking about literally sticking chemicals in arms.”
Media personalities should encourage their audiences to get vaccinated by talking about safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines in a responsible way. But some right-wing talk radio hosts like Mandis are choosing instead to suggest that they are personally hesitant to take the vaccine -- or even promoting outright anti-vaccine misinformation.
As the supply of COVID-19 vaccines increases, some states are beginning to identify vaccine hesitancy, particularly among Republicans, as a potential roadblock to developing herd immunity. A recent poll suggests that nearly half of Republican men do not plan on receiving the vaccine.
Right-wing media is uniquely suited to address this problem, but so far conservative outlets seem largely uninterested in promoting the vaccines. Fox News hosts have repeatedly undermined the vaccine rollout, for example, and the network devoted almost no time to covering remarks by former President Donald Trump encouraging his supporters to get vaccinated.
Some local conservative talk radio hosts are also eroding confidence in the vaccines among already skeptical audiences -- including in states that have begun to reckon with vaccine hesitancy.
In Texas, where a poll taken earlier this year indicated that one-third of residents are unlikely to get vaccinated, two radio hosts with national profiles have helped to spread anti-vaccine misinformation.
Michael Berry, a nationally syndicated host based in Houston, raised fears about vaccines being “rushed to market” and falsely claimed on March 18 that boxer Marvin Hagler died due to a COVID-19 vaccination.
Joe Pagliarulo, another nationally syndicated host based in San Antonio, complained on March 12 that Trump was not given enough credit for the vaccine development process, saying, “I’m not a vaccine guy, I won’t be taking the vaccine. But I’m not an anti-vaxxer necessarily, I just like to know exactly what it is they’re injecting into my arm.” He then walked it back, adding, “If you want the vaccine and you are in a susceptible category, you should get it. I’m not here to say you shouldn’t.” (Last July, Pagliarulo promoted anti-vaccine misinformation in an interview with conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.)
Tennessee host Michael DelGiorno -- who broadcasts on WWTN in Nashville like Mandis -- has also expressed skepticism about the vaccines, even as the state is expanding vaccine eligibility in part due to limited demand.
DelGiorno, speaking to audiences on March 15, compared COVID-19 vaccines to “the mark of the beast,” saying that “it might as well be” because people would still “flock to get it.” Days earlier, DelGiorno said that “where I struggle with the COVID vaccines” is “when I look at the odds of being that 1% that would get it and die, especially at today’s treatment levels, versus the risks of the vaccination. But I haven’t made my mind up, I’m just saying.”
Virginia-based host John Fredericks recently purchased a station in Georgia, where one-third of residents are hesitant about taking the vaccine. Fredericks claimed on March 19 that “I’m not taking it because I don’t need it. Because I’m a perfectly healthy man and if I get it, my chances of recovery 99.97%, so why would I take a vaccine? For what purpose? Zero.”
Another Georgia host, Scott Ryfun, told his audience that he was considering skipping the second dose of his COVID-19 vaccine. Ryfun explained that his concerns about a second dose stemmed from his wife’s experience with vaccine side effects. (Vaccine recipients should be aware that side effects are possible, but these potential side effects do not outweigh the benefits each vaccination provides.)
Ryfun said, “I know, I know. ... ‘You’re a responsible on-air personality and people listen to you and they take your advice, and they heed your words.’ Good. Because I don’t know if I’m getting my second vaccine shot.”
Ryfun is right about the potential impact he and his fellow conservative talk radio hosts can have, and it’s their responsibility to encourage as many of their listeners as possible to get vaccinated.