Yes, governor, mixed messages contribute to vaccine hesitancy. So stop sending them.

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference Nov. 24, 2020, at Iowa PBS in Johnston. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

Gov. Kim Reynolds recently blamed “mixed messages” for the fact that demand for the COVID-19 vaccine has dropped to the point that most Iowa counties are refusing all or part of new shipments.

“I think, honestly, a lot of it is just the mixed messaging that’s happening,” Reynolds said during her news conference May 5. “Do you wear a mask outdoors? Do you not wear a mask outdoors? If you get a vaccine, after you’ve met the criteria, the timeframe, can you remove the mask? I think Iowans … want to return back to normal, but there has to some incentives for getting the vaccine to actually make that happen. But we are in the process of trying to identify what that looks like.”

Reynolds is probably right that some people, especially younger Iowans, need more incentive to get the vaccine. And she’s certainly correct about mixed messages, except for the part where she blamed federal guidance. Instead of pointing fingers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she should look no farther than the Iowa Statehouse and her own Republican Party. And the mirror.

Reynolds and her party made it a top priority in the past two weeks to ram through legislation that would, in a sense, eliminate incentives for getting the vaccine. The vaccine passport bill, now headed to Reynolds’ desk, would penalize businesses, government entities and other venues that require proof of vaccination for public admission.

The bill itself is full of loopholes, to the point that the strident and politically active anti-vaxx groups in the state have railed against it. Health care facilities aren’t covered by the bill, a fact that sent the conspiracy theorists’ tinfoil hats spinning. I don’t think Iowans should have to show proof of vaccination to go grocery shopping or to attend a ballgame. But the bill doesn’t stop that. Businesses that don’t get government contracts or grants would face no penalty.

The real harm isn’t this bill. The harm comes from the virulent rhetoric from some lawmakers supporting the bill who made it sound dangerous and almost un-American to get a vaccine.

“Iowans don’t want to be forced to have a chemical injected into their body to be able to go to a baseball game, to go to the grocery store, to live their lives,” Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel said during Senate debate of the legislation. “… Here in Iowa, we will protect Iowans from being forced by tyrannical governments to inject their body with chemicals that they may or may not wish to have.”

Chapman could have used part of his remarks to encourage all eligible Iowans to get vaccinated, as the governor typically does. He could have pointed out that Iowans who choose to get vaccinated are making everyone safer at the grocery store, the ballgame and especially at grandma’s nursing home. He could have worked to persuade Iowans that the vaccines are safe and effective and the clear path toward a return to normal life.

Instead, he chose to pretend there are “tyrannical governments” in Iowa that are out to force people to be vaccinated.  There aren’t. And that’s at the root of another “mixed message” that Reynolds needs to acknowledge and address if she’s serious about increasing Iowa’s vaccination rate.

The Republican Party and its media sycophants have spent decades repeating the message that the government can’t be trusted. At the federal level, the GOP spent the last four years proving the point with a president who could be trusted only to lie incessantly.

And now, when getting as many people as possible vaccinated quickly will literally save Iowans’ lives, Reynolds wants to blame the CDC for the lack of trust in government.

Reynolds has been the queen of mixed messages throughout the pandemic.

She’s spent most of the past year telling people they shouldn’t have to wear a mask if they don’t want to, while trying simultaneously to encourage people to follow coronavirus safety guidelines, including wearing a mask.

Now, she apparently wants scientists and doctors to tell people they can stop wearing masks if they get a shot — even though that means unvaccinated people will stop wearing masks, too. And that means people who want to be safe and responsible will keep wearing masks indoors and requiring them in public venues until most people are vaccinated.

Meanwhile, she goes on FOX News to take credit for telling people they don’t have to get vaccinated if they don’t feel like it, even as she spends a half-hour on public television every week in Iowa telling people they really should get vaccinated.

Governor, you’re absolutely right that mixed messages are to blame for much of the vaccine hesitancy among Iowans. So stop mixing your messages. Stop pandering to anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and their enablers in the GOP. Stop pretending to rescue us from “tyrannical” government and start bringing those mobile vaccine clinics to county GOP meetings and party fundraisers.

Kathie Obradovich
Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.