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Facebook audit: COVID-19 vaccine messaging among KC-area political leaders largely absent

Virus Outbreak California Vaccine
Posted at 6:54 PM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-14 10:13:01-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Missouri has made national headlines as the COVID-19 delta variant fuels a surge in predominantly rural and predominantly unvaccinated areas of the state.

The highly contagious delta variant, which is responsible for a surge in hospitalizations across the state, was first detected in Missouri on May 11 in Branson through the Missouri Sewershed Surveillance Project, according to Jeff Wenzel, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services' Bureau of Environmental Epidemiology Bureau Chief. It began being regularly detected June 7 in the Kansas City area.

Even as cases began to climb in some northern Missouri counties and the delta variant rapidly spreads across southwest Missouri and into central Missouri, the DHSS didn’t issue its first public warning until June 16, shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially labeled delta as a variant of concern.

Based on an audit of Facebook posts from local, state and congressional leaders in Kansas and Missouri, ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts haven’t been a priority since June 1 — ticking up slightly as the Fourth of July weekend approached amid the rising cases.

Out of 884 posts on Facebook during that span, only 47 — or 5.3% — mention the COVID-19 vaccine, including a total of 29 posts from four of the 11 political leaders that actively encourage vaccination.

That’s important given the politicization of COVID-19 vaccines, evidenced by this study on the red/blue vaccination divide from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the importance of Facebook for news consumption, especially since all 11 political leaders included in the audit have sizable followings.

The notable exception is Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, whose official Facebook page has included 26 posts in the past six weeks about COVID-19 vaccines and vaccination efforts.

More than 23% of the messaging on her Facebook page since June 1 mentions vaccines.

Meanwhile, four local political leaders from Missouri — Reps. Emanuel Cleaver II, Sam Graves and Vicky Hartzler, along with Sen. Josh Hawley — haven’t mentioned COVID-19 vaccines on Facebook during that span.

Four other high-ranking political leaders — Sens. Roy Blunt, Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran, along with Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas — have posted three or fewer times about the vaccine or vaccination efforts.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson also had refrained from posting about the COVID-19 on Facebook, with one message from June 1 to July 6 encouraging the public to get vaccinated, but he has ramped up messaging in recent days with four posts explicitly encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Rep. Sharice Davids has mentioned the COVID-19 vaccine, often encouraging the public to get vaccinated, in six posts since June 1.

All 11 political leaders have been vaccinated, according to responses to a brief survey from 41 Action News about the COVID-19 vaccine.

For more information about COVID-19 vaccines, Missouri’s Stronger Together vaccination resource includes a vaccine finder and information about the COVID-19 vaccines. Kansas has a similar resource, relying on the CDC’s vaccine-finder tool.

Here’s a complete breakdown of local leaders’ vaccine messaging on Facebook:

Sen. Roy Blunt

Official page Facebook likes: 31,441

Follows: 83,483

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, mentioned the COVID-19 vaccine in three of 41 posts since June 1 on his Facebook page, where he also declared the pandemic “nearly defeated” on June 15 with Missouri in the midst of its largest surge in new cases since July 2020.

He praised the scientific community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in a link post to his Washington Times op-ed, citing active participation from the federal government as a driving force, and suggested it should be a model for combatting other diseases moving forward.

Another post about COVID19 vaccines included a link to research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis about the “strong and potentially long-lasting” immune response created by mRNA vaccines.

Blunt also said “getting more Missourians vaccinated and back in the workforce” was discussed at a June 30 meeting with the Mark Twain Regional Council of Governments, which serves as the regional planning commission for much of northeast Missouri.

He did not directly appeal to his constituents to get vaccinated in any of the posts, though Blunt’s office pointed to a March 10 Facebook post and an April 29 tweet in which he encouraged the public “to consider” getting vaccinated.

Blunt praised and thanked health care workers at the Ozarks Community Health Center for doing “an incredible job meeting an unprecedented challenge” in a June 2 post, but didn’t mention COVID-19 or vaccines.

Blunt was far more likely to post on Facebook about the economy (13) and the election reform fight in the Senate (7).

His office confirmed that Blunt is vaccinated and said “he has been actively encouraging all Missourians to consider getting vaccinated” in a statement to 41 Action News.

Blunt renewed his call for everyone to get vaccinated unless advised not to by the doctor meeting with reporters July 13, stressing that it's "vaccines vs. variant."

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II

Official page Facebook likes: 25,307

Follows: 32,312

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, a Missouri Democrat, utilizes Facebook less than any other local politician, but none of the 14 posts since June 1 on his political figure and more-active campaign pages reference the COVID-19 vaccine.

The three most recent posts on his personal page are about the forthcoming Child Tax Credit from the American Rescue Plan that should begin to hit bank accounts next week.

In a statement, Cleaver’s office said, “The congressman has been vaccinated and highly encourages Missourians to do so.”

Rep. Sharice Davids

Official page Facebook likes: 18,157

Follows: 20,029

Since June 1, there have been 72 posts to Rep. Sharice Davids’ official Facebook account, including six that reference the COVID-19 vaccine.

Davids joined Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly for a public service announcement to encourage vaccinations and also posted a link to resources for anyone wishing to get vaccinated in the days leading up to the Fourth of July weekend, when health officials worried gatherings would lead to an increase in cases.

Additionally, Davids posted about vaccine clinics at F.L. Schlagle High School and Johnson County Community College, encouraged vaccination surrounding her Call With A Congresswoman, and posted her interview with Univision Kansas City regarding vaccine outreach to the Latinx community.

She also posted June 3 about declining COVID-19 cases, crediting the American Rescue Plan stimulus bill and President Biden’s administration, but didn’t mention vaccines as part of that message.

Davids posted nearly four times as often about the economy (22), often touting the benefits of the stimulus or reports about job gains. She also was more likely to post about civil rights (10), including messages about Pride Month and Juneteenth, and infrastructure (10).

Davids, the first lesbian woman of color elected to Congress, is one of 11 openly gay members of the current U.S. Congress.

She and Cleaver were vaccinated in January during a clinic at the U.S. Capitol.

Rep. Sam Graves

Official page Facebook likes: 47,700

Follows: 56,671

Since June 1, Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, there have been 100 posts on his office’s Facebook page, including zero that mention the COVID-19 vaccine.

The only post to tangentially mention COVID-19 vaccines was a post with a link to a Fox News article about plans for a door-knocking campaign to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates, which Graves derided as “a bonehead idea.”

He also posted twice about the origins of the COVID-19 vaccine, including a link to an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.

Graves’ district includes Platte County, most of Clay County, a sliver of Jackson County and all of northern Missouri — including Livingston and Linn counties, where COVID-19 cases began surging in late May.

He was far more likely to post about infrastructure (20), history (11), the Waters of the United States rules (10), flooding and FEMA clawbacks (10), or illegal immigration (5).

Rep. Vicky Hartzler

Official page Facebook likes: 16,960

Follows: 21,580

Across her campaign and congressional office pages, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican, has made 75 posts since June 1 — none that mention the COVID-19 vaccine.

Her most popular talking points were illegal immigration (15) and the military (9), along with five posts each about China, invoking former President Trump or her announcement earlier this month that she would run for Roy Blunt’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

Hartzler represents a congressional district that extends south and west of the Kansas City area and includes Bates, Cass, Henry, Johnson and Pettis counties, along with portions of southwest Missouri.

Her office confirmed that she has been vaccinated but stopped short of encouraging the public to get vaccinated.

“Rep. Hartzler encourages people to get information about the vaccines but believes Missourians know what is best for their families and respects each personal decision regarding the COVID-19 vaccine,” Hartzler’s office said. “She does not think it is appropriate for government officials to solicit vaccinations door-to-door.”

Sen. Josh Hawley

Official page Facebook likes: 71,655

Follows: 88,999

None of the 19 posts, many of which are of family but others that are overtly political in nature, since June 1 on his Senate campaign page mentions COVID-19 vaccines.

Among the nine posts on his office’s main page, one mentions COVID-19 in the context of his concerns about how Canada’s health restrictions impact religious freedom there.

He hasn’t posted multiple times about any one subject to that page nor has he mentioned the COVID-19 vaccine, but his office did confirm that he is vaccinated.

“I’m vaccinated, but we need to give everybody the opportunity to make their own medical decisions,” Hawley said in a statement to 41 Action News. “Medical decisions are intensely personal decisions, and we need to trust folks with these decisions. The American people are smart and independent minded. And, having experts and government officials lecture us or threaten to visit our homes won’t do anything to persuade those who are hesitant. It will have the opposite effect.”

Gov. Laura Kelly

Official page Facebook likes: 50,953

Follows: 69,181

Among the 11 politicians selected for the audit, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s Facebook page has been the most consistent with regard to COVID-19 messaging.

She’s made 111 posts since June 1 on her official page, including 26 that mention the pandemic and 17 that specifically address vaccine or vaccination efforts.

Kelly has pinned a post from March 23 that said the COVID-19 vaccine is “safe, effective, and will protect all of us as we return to normal” atop her page.

Her posts during the past six weeks include updates on Kansas vaccination rates and vaccination campaigns, including a door-to-door effort in Shawnee County and outreach to Spanish-speaking residents; the emerging delta variant; the PSA with Rep. Sharice Davids; information about vaccine equity; two posts about the state’s emergency declaration and its importance in the vaccination effort; and multiple posts about vaccine clinics.

Kelly also has frequently posted about the economy (28) and infrastructure (12) along with six posts each about civil rights, agriculture and the military.

Mayor Quinton Lucas

Official page Facebook likes: 37,101

Follows: 49,810

Mayor Quinton Lucas has made 85 posts since June 1 on his official Facebook page, including four regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and three that specifically mention vaccines.

He appeared June 23 on The University of Kansas Health System’s daily briefing to discuss the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccination efforts and also shared a link to the conversation.

Four days later, he authored another post with a link to an article about rising hospitalization rates in the region, asking Kansas Citians to “encourage those you know and love, or even those you are just ‘meh’ about, to take the vaccine.”

Lucas also posted about a KCPD officer who died from COVID-19, and suggested Missouri should “fight COVID, not the federal government” after Parson said Biden’s door-to-door campaign wasn’t welcome.

He’s posted more often about the Kansas City, Missouri, police department and/or violent crime (18), including five posts specifically about the department’s funding.

Lucas also has posted frequently about community events (16), civil rights (10), building safety and infrastructure (8), and the economy or KC-area jobs (8).

Sen. Roger Marshall

Official page Facebook likes: 49,467

Follows: 54,433

Dr. Roger Marshall, a Republican senator from Kansas, has made 60 posts on his office’s Facebook page since June 1, including two that mention the COVID-19 vaccine.

He has posted eight times during that span about the origin of COVID-19 and the need for further investigation.

Marshall also has posted 11 times about town halls or other public appearances, along with frequent posts on voting rights (6) and the economy (5).

The only two mentions of the vaccine came June 7 in a post crediting Operation Warp Speed, the name for the federal vaccine development initiative, for helping Kansas turn the tide of the pandemic and a July 2 post where he touted and thanked workers at McPherson’s Pfizer plant for manufacturing the vaccine.

Neither post actively encouraged unvaccinated individuals to receive the vaccine.

However, Marshall, whose office confirmed he is vaccinated, previously posted a public service announcement in April 2021, encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Marshall, a physician and former U.S. Army reservist, said the vaccine was safe, calling the development process “rigorous and transparent” and noting that he followed it closely. He calls vaccines “a clear path to the eradication of the pandemic.”

He encouraged the public to seek and follow the advice of doctors, pharmacists and nurses.

“I hope you will join me along with over 100 million Americans in choosing to get the vaccine,” Marshall said.

Nine other doctors who serve in Congress recorded similar messages.

Sen. Jerry Moran

Official page Facebook likes: 23,747

Follows: 51,378

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, mentioned COVID-19 in five of 61 posts on his Facebook page, specifically mentioning vaccines twice.

Among his five posts that mention COVID-19, one was of a letter questioning the Transportation Security Administration’s mask mandate for public travel and two dealt with the hours of operation at the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

Neither of his posts that mention the COVID-19 vaccine — one regarding a town hall in Olathe and the other about the Taiwanese ambassador’s request for vaccine assistance from the U.S. among other topics — encouraged Kansans to get vaccinated.

He did appear in a video for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, urging "everyone to get their COVID vaccine to help protect your friends and family" in mid-June.

Marshall and Davids also appeared in the video along with Dr. Samni Areola, the director of the county health department.

Moran posted about nine additional town halls, but didn’t mention the pandemic or vaccines on those occasions. He also was more likely to post about the aviation sector (7) or military (6).

Gov. Mike Parson

Official page Facebook likes: 90,151

Follows: 134,283

Among 237 posts on Gov. Mike Parson’s Facebook page since June 1, there are 12 that mention the COVID-19 vaccine with four of the five actively encouraging Missourians to get vaccinated coming in the past three days as a federal COVID-19 surge response team arrived in Missouri.

Only one post — a link to a video from Fox News Business channel — mentions the delta variant, though it comes under a generic headline and neither specifically mentions the alarming trend in Missouri nor does it encourage vaccination.

There had only been one post to Parson’s official page since the start of June, which more broadly touted the Show Me Strong Recovery Plan, that actively encouraged Missourians to get vaccinated before Wednesday night.

Parson has since posted four times encouraging Missouri residents to get vaccinated and shared a post Friday from the Springfield-Greene County Health Department with details of upcoming vaccine clinics.

The first two vaccine-related posts were prefaced by his directive “to tell the federal government that sending government employees or agents door-to-door to compel vaccination would NOT be an effective OR welcome strategy in Missouri.”

In both posts, Parson went on to note that he and his wife, Teresa, have been vaccinated “and we encourage anyone age 12 and up to get vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them.”

The post Thursday morning included photos of the Missouri governor and first lady receiving an inoculation.

He mentioned vaccination as “the best method of COVID-19 prevention” in another post Thursday and touted the public’s “access to the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine” in a post Friday.

The focus on vaccinations has been recent with most mentions earlier in the month touting the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine with no call to action.

Parson posted 79 times about the economy — including posts on taxes, tourism, jobs and Missouri businesses — since June 1 and also had more than 20 posts about both infrastructure and law enforcement.

Parson also posted nearly as much or more about Missouri’s upcoming bicentennial (14), veterans and the military (9), the prescription drug monitoring program (8), and Medicaid (8).

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 13 to reflect the survey response from Sen. Jerry Moran's office, which was not available at the original time of publication.