Politics the reason Canada has surpassed U.S. on COVID vaccines, Fauci says

How did the U.S. squander a months-long lead to fall behind Canada on COVID-19 vaccinations, leaving it short of herd immunity while a deadly variant wallops unvaccinated pockets of the country? U.S. official Anthony Fauci blames his country's politics.

U.S. doctor says Canada benefited from vaccines not becoming a political controversy

Anthony Fauci, seen here at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, has grown frustrated with what he calls anti-vaccine misinformation. He says almost everyone dying from COVID-19 in the country now is unvaccinated. (Stefani Reynolds/New York Times/The Associated Press)

This story is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians.

What's new

News that Canada has surged past the U.S. in vaccinations for COVID-19 prompted a number of headlines in American and international news outlets, given how remote this scenario seemed months ago.

It's also prompted some finger-pointing within the U.S. One person making apparent his increasing frustration with developments in the U.S. is Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

He was asked in a CNN interview what happened and why Canada had surpassed the U.S. in the rate of first and second doses despite the U.S.'s months-long head start.

Fauci blamed politics in the U.S.

"Canada is doing better not because we are trying any less than they are trying. It's because in Canada you don't have that divisiveness of people not wanting to get vaccinated, in many respects, on the basis of ideology and political persuasion," Fauci said in the interview Monday.

"I mean, political differences are totally understandable and a natural part of the process in any country. But when it comes to a public health issue, in which you're in the middle of a deadly pandemic and the common enemy is the virus, it just doesn't make any sense....

"That's a public health issue. That's not political. That's not ideological. It's a public health issue."

Then, on Tuesday, Fauci's frustration emerged during a U.S. Senate hearing. He expressed his annoyance with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul — a frequent critic of Fauci's throughout the pandemic. 

WATCH | Fauci snaps in frustration with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul at a hearing Tuesday:

Fauci lashes out at Sen. Rand Paul

2 years ago
Duration 3:27
At one point saying 'you do not know what you are talking about,' a frustrated Dr. Anthony Fauci debated the origins of the coronavirus with Sen. Rand Paul at a Senate committee in Washington.

What's the context

Canada has roughly 70 per cent of its total population with at least one dose and more than 50 per cent fully vaccinated, with a slight difference between provinces. The U.S. rate is wildly uneven between states, with some boasting high vaccination rates and others very low ones.

As a result, the ratio of Americans with at least one dose is 15 percentage points lower than in Canada, and the ratio of fully vaccinated people is now about two percentage points lower in the U.S., according to the Our World In Data website run out of Oxford University.

Americans are increasingly worried that resistance to getting vaccinated is driving a case surge in pockets of the country.

In particular, counties and states that vote Republican have the lowest vaccination rates and are suffering the hardest impact from the delta variant.

Fauci says the virus has been too politicized in the U.S., and he would know. He's become a political target himself, as seen at this protest at a pro-vaccination event he attended with Jill Biden in New York City on June 6. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Fauci said 99.5 per cent of all the deaths due to COVID-19 in the U.S. are now among unvaccinated people, with fully vaccinated people accounting for just 0.5 per cent.

But for over a year now, the conversation about COVID has been swamped in partisan politics, something Fauci has personal experience with.

In Florida, the state's Republican governor, touted as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, has been selling a "Don't Fauci My Florida" T-shirt, as he resists calls for vaccine passports and vaccination requirements. His state is now a COVID hotspot again.

Watch: Woman whose husband died of COVID-19 urges the vaccine-hesitant to get shots:

Maryland woman urges vaccine-hesitant Americans to get COVID shot

2 years ago
Duration 0:31
Michele Preissler says she thinks her husband, Darryl, 63, would still be alive if he had been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Darryl died in May of COVID-19, a few weeks after attending a family wedding.

Meanwhile, right-wing news outlets regularly feature guests who question vaccine effectiveness or who criticize various public vaccination efforts as heavy-handed. 

In a separate interview, Fauci said polio would still exist if the country had dealt with past vaccines this way.

What's next

Some personalities on Fox News pleaded this week for viewers to get vaccinated. 

The latest case spike has roiled stock markets, and cast a cloud over plans to reopen international travel. For months, U.S. lawmakers had been pushing Canada to ease travel restrictions. 

Now Canada is, indeed, relaxing those restrictions, with further easing on Aug. 9. And it's unclear when the U.S. might do the same for land travellers. The U.S. never stopped cross-border air travel.

The White House was non-committal when asked Monday whether it will follow Canada's move when the latest monthly travel rule lapses in the middle of this week. 

"Any decisions about reopening travel will be guided by our public health and medical experts," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

"We take this incredibly seriously. But we ... are guided by our own medical experts. I wouldn't look at it through a reciprocal intention."