How one Congressman is working to persuade Americans to get COVID-19 vaccinations

Jeff Bendix, Senior Editor

Congressman Brad Wenstrup, D.P.M., spoke with us on how to overcome vaccine hesitancy and about the Doctors Caucus’s legislative agenda.

Congressman Brad Wenstrup, D.P.M., represents Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District and co-chairs the Republican Doctors Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Alarmed by declining rates of COVID-19 vaccinations, Wenstrup and several other Caucus members participated in a public service announcement (PSA) produced by the de Beaumont Foundation assuring viewers that the vaccines are safe and effective and urging them to get it.

Wenstrup spoke recently with Medical Economics about his decision to take part in the PSA, his views on how to overcome vaccine hesitancy, and the Doctors Caucus’s legislative agenda. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Medical Economics: How did you get involved with the de Beaumont Foundation’s PSAs?

Brad Wenstrup: They came to us. They were working with Frank Luntz. He’s a pollster and very concerned about people not getting vaccines. I was involved with Frank in a focus group with people who were hesitant to get a vaccine and who were also Trump supporters. And when we talked to these people, once they understood how the vaccine was made, and about the safety and effectiveness of this vaccine and why it was important, many of them changed their mind.

Frank had some sort of connection with the de Beaumont Foundation who said “Let’s get the message out from a group of Republican physicians in Congress.” They’d wanted to put together a PSA that they would produce and distribute. We recorded it mostly wearing our white coats because what we found is, people want to be educated, not indoctrinated. And they want to hear from someone they trust.

I served for three years on the Cincinnati Board of Health. We never had something the size of this pandemic, but I saw that you’ve got to have accurate data if you’re going to be successful at managing a condition such as COVID-19.

ME: Did viewing these focus groups change your attitude about people who were vaccine hesitant?

BW: It’s a feeling you kind of get. As a member of Congress you’re out in your community all the time, same as a doctor in full-time practice, you have a good idea what people are thinking. But this really kind of nailed it down. The bottom line is, Americans don’t do very well with “Do this because I told you so.” We want to be educated and know why we should be doing something.

I think that throughout this whole process bedside manner was not always at its best because when you hear from an epidemiologist or virologist, they’re focusing on the virus, not necessarily looking at all the other health problems, the depressions, the suicides, all these conditions that came with lockdowns. If you believe people should wear a mask and it’s effective then explain why it’s effective. So this more or less confirmed what I thought to be true already.

ME: What’s been the response from your constituents, and other members of Congress?

BW: I think it’s been good. When I talk to people individually, and my fellow members of Congress say the same thing, when they have the opportunity to sit and discuss the vaccine in detail with them, explain that this isn’t new technology, that corners weren’t cut, it’s bureaucracy that was cut. So all of those things have changed people’s minds.

At the beginning [of the vaccine rollout] the most vulnerable were showing up. They were the ones saying, “I want this now, I haven’t seen my grandkids, I know I was really at risk and want to be able to to live again,” and that’s who showed up en masse.

Now it’s getting people to understand that they affect the community. I’ll give you an example. Before the vaccines we in Greater Cincinnati were averaging 800 people in the hospital with COVID per day, And that dropped quickly to 400 once the vaccines started coming out, and last week (early May) it was 142. And of those, not one had gotten the vaccine. That’s a pretty compelling story to tell.

We also want to point out that although they may be in the low-risk category, we do see people at younger ages getting very sick from COVID. So I guess it is a game of playing the odds for some people, but at the same time I stress to them that they have a greater chance of getting COVID and getting sick by not getting the vaccine than by getting the vaccine.

ME: I meant the question more as what was the response to your doing the PSA? Did anyone say it wasn’t appropriate, or ask why you were doing it?

BW: Just the opposite. ABC Nightline did a whole piece on it, CNN had me on to talk about it, and what I hear from my colleagues in the Republican Doctors Caucus has been very positive in their home communities. When we filmed it we all filmed one for ourselves that we could push out to our districts, then we had one that combined us all and was more for a national audience.

ME: What about members of Congress who aren’t part of the Doctors Caucus?

BW: They really liked it. And our leadership on the Republican side came to us (the Doctors Caucus) and said I really want you all to be deeply engaged with this and be able to be a voice not only to help people across the country understand what’s going on but for our own conference to know what’s going on and to be able to be accurate in their messaging. And [HHS] Secretary Azar and [FDA Commissioner] Steven Hahn were engaging with us on a regular basis. We also had virtual town halls with Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and [NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins] as we watched the development of this vaccine and what the science was and where we were headed with this.

ME: What, if anything, have you learned from the experience that you might be able to share with other doctors to help them persuade their vaccine-hesitant patients to get the vaccine?

BW: I think practitioners need to be well-versed on the science and on the process of Operation Warp Speed and how it came about safely and effectively. I don’t think the day-to-day practitioner normally engages in that much detail, but I think we have to with this, so we can pass on that information to our patients and alleviate many of their concerns.

ME: So becoming familiar enough with the vaccines that you can convey to your patients that they are safe and effective?

BW: Yeah, and not only the vaccine itself, but how we got to that point. Understanding how the process is done. Because that’s what a lot of people were talking about. They were saying things like “they cut corners, I don’t trust it.” Well, they didn’t cut corners, we just cut out a lot of bureaucracy and made the process more efficient.

ME: What do you think about the vaccination effort so far? How do you think it’s been going?

BW: I think it’s been going very well. I think people have been innovative and it’s a huge logistical effort to get this done. The Defense Department was involved as far as getting it out across the country, and different communities have required different approaches. The University of Cincinnati used their buildings and garages and people drove through. In some of my rural communities people were coming to the fairgrounds where they were able to drive through and we had local doctors and nurses administering it.

So it was really a matter of finding what works best for each community. And now I think we’re at the point where some people are hesitant because of scheduling, and the more we can make it easy to walk up and get vaccinated, the better. Right now supply exceeds demand so we want to increase that demand and try to get everyone vaccinated.

ME: I read that you were administering the vaccine. Was that in a University of Cincinnati facility?

BW: Right, I was at the University of Cincinnati’s drive through facility and I’ve also been out with the National Guard. In all these things when you’re out talking to people you’ve just got to be prepared with the facts and you have to be honest and be respectful to possible differences of opinion or feelings they may be harboring. One of our jobs as physicians is to reduce patients’ anxiety. So that’s part of this, when they have anxiety or hesitance we try to reduce that.

ME: Talk about the GOP Doctors Caucus agenda. What sort of legislation would you like to see enacted, and how do you feel about the direction the country’s going in terms of health care policy?

BW: Medicine is always changing and we want to talk about the modernization of medicine. In general we want to focus on healthspan rather than just lifespan. The U.S. leads the world as far as treatments and innovations and I don’t want to give that up. But at the same time, how do we keep people healthier longer? To me that’s where the savings are. If your dying days are very short compared to being sick for a long period of time, the better we are as a country.

So that’s kind of the background of where we are. Of course, we were very engaged with therapeutics and the vaccine process in relation to COVID-19. But a lot of other issues have come up. We really led the way on the surprise billing fix. There were several committees working on that. I’m on the Ways and Means Committee and I felt we had the best bill, because we were trying to take the patient out of the equation. For example, you go to the hospital because your appendix burst, your doctor is in network but the anesthesiologist isn’t, and all of a sudden you get this large bill. So how do we handle it? Take the patient out of it and leave it between the doctor and the insurance company.

We put in a lot of transparency, especially for elective procedures so people want to know their costs up-front. It’s always frustrating as a doctor when patients ask and we’d ask the insurance company and they’d say “you’ll find out after the surgery.”So we tried to clear that up.

Drug pricing is something else we’re working on. We have some bipartisan pieces of legislation and we’re in the process of making another PSA on some of the things we think can really lower drug prices without stifling innovation.

We’re working on supply chain. If you’d told me while I was serving as a surgeon in Iraq that my protective equipment and pharmaceuticals relied on an adversary, China, I’d have said “how did we ever get here?” We saw that problem first-hand with COVID.

We’re also working on the best way to administer telehealth. I think we all found there are huge advantages to that, especially for some of our rural and underserved areas of the country.

So a lot of issues are coming forward. We want to continue working towards greater access, affordability and quality of care for patients.

ME: Anything else you want to add about helping patients understand the COVID vaccines and hopefully agree to get them?

BW: Bottom line, understand what it does and how it’s benefitting everyone. But you have to be honest, too. Right now we don’t know how long this vaccine will last or if we’ll need a booster. But we do know now that people getting the vaccine, even if they get COVID, they’re not being hospitalized and they’re not dying. By and large the efficacy speaks for itself.