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Amid rise of COVID-19 cases, a GOP lawmaker puts on lab coat to push vaccine

MCCONNELLSBURG, Pa. — U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-Blair, strode into a tidy pharmacy here on Tuesday to praise the workers who were struggling to convince people to get the COVID-19 vaccine amid rising cases and swirling conspiracy theories that had prompted a desperate Facebook plea from a local pharmacist.

“You’re going to continue to be on the front line. You know that,” Mr. Joyce said, talking shop about the science of immunity and the new therapeutics under development. He called the vaccine the “pathway” to getting back to normal.

Outside the pharmacy — in the passenger seat of an aide’s vehicle after day of stops through his vast rural district — Mr. Joyce said he understood some businesses’ recent decisions to require unvaccinated employees to follow health guidelines like wearing masks, getting regular tests and social distancing.

If “I’m in a small environment, or I’m in an environment where patients are coming in and out, I can see that,” Mr. Joyce said.

“But that has to be determined by the employer,” he quickly added. “The freedoms of our country supersede everything else.”

Congress’ long summer recess is playing out at a pivotal point in the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 200 million Americans have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, leading to a decline in cases and hospitalizations through the spring that allowed governments to loosen restrictions on in-person gatherings.

But now, heading into the fall, the vaccine rollout has slowed. Unvaccinated Americans, some 40% of the population, are vulnerable to the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19. Some pandemic restrictions have returned. Major employers are requiring proof of vaccination. A normal school year is in doubt.

The threat of another wave of COVID-19 has put Republicans in a tricky spot with their base: balancing the need to prod their constituents to stamp out the pandemic while respecting conservative arguments individual liberties and contending with their distrust of government and the medical establishment, much of it bred by former President Donald Trump.

Mr. Joyce, a physician for more than 25 years who often leans on his medical bona fides in Washington, is entering the national fray on a local level.

And as the second-term congressman representing Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District, his constituents are among the most conservative in the state, with nearly 72% of their vote going for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Joyce has chosen to prioritize stops at pharmacies — MacDonald’s Pharmacy in Fulton County was his eighth pharmacy stop in the past few weeks, an aide said — to, in some ways, defend the power of science and demystify the vaccine.

In an interview at a coffee shop Tuesday, he recalled the sense of civic duty his parents instilled in him amid the 20th-century rollout of the polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh.

“To be able to have this in about a year’s worth of time really shows the ingenuity of America,” Mr. Joyce said. He said he was concerned about all the possible variants, now and later. “This virus has the capabilities to mutate and we have to be on guard against that.”

Mr. Joyce got vaccinated as soon as it was offered to members of Congress earlier this year. He encouraged — but did not require — his staff to get the jab as well. All of his staff are currently vaccinated.

As a dermatologist in Altoona, where he founded a practice with his wife in the early 1990s, he was required to get the influenza shot each year to treat patients. His medical ID badge showed he was vaccinated, he said.

In April, Mr. Joyce joined nine other lawmakers in the GOP Doctors Caucus to film a public service announcement that urged people to get vaccinated.

He lauded the Trump administration’s efforts to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine, called Operation Warp Speed, which resulted in three vaccines that received emergency approval by federal regulators.

“Operation Warp Speed brought us safe and effective vaccines — all in record time,” Mr. Joyce said in the video. “Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists nationwide recommend the COVID-19 vaccine to their patients.”

Yet his constituents may be listening to other GOP lawmakers who have spread messages that turn people against medical experts.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who contracted COVID-19 last year, has refused to get vaccinated, railed against requirements to do so, and called mask guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “anti-science.”

“They can’t arrest us all,” Mr. Paul, also a physician, wrote in a Fox News op-ed last week. “We don’t have to accept the mandates, lockdowns, and harmful policies of the petty tyrants and feckless bureaucrats.”

Mr. Joyce has spoken out against federal vaccine requirements, too.

He introduced the Protecting Americans’ Safety, Security, and Privacy Over Repressive Tyranny Act, or PASSPORT Act, which would prohibit federal funds from being used to develop, implement, support, or endorse vaccine passports. No such federal vaccine passports are in the works, the Biden administration has said.

But Mr. Joyce said he feels a duty to “put on the lab coat” to spread a positive message about health professionals. 

A relative unknown

Mr. Joyce, as a politician, was relatively unknown when he ran for Congress in 2018. He scraped by in a crowded GOP primary election by about 1 percentage point, but winning the general election handily in the deep-red district. He was tasked with filling the shoes of Bill and Bud Shuster, a father-son political dynasty that had held the seat for the previous 50 years.

But Mr. Joyce, as a doctor, was always embedded in central Pennsylvania and knew its people.

He was born and raised in Altoona and got a biology degree from Penn State University in 1979. He received his medical degree from Temple University and completed a three-year residency in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University, today an authoritative source of COVID-19 data and research.

He said that, when he ran for office, his patient records showed he had treated people from every zip code in his district.

Today, much of his district — a landscape of rolling farmland and tall mountain ridges dotted with small towns, dairy farms and peach orchards — lagged the state and the country in vaccination rate.

Fulton County is the state’s most unvaccinated county, with just 23% of its population fully vaccinated, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Vaccinations since June 1 were doled out at less than a third of the rate seen in January through May. On five days in July, no vaccines were administered county-wide, according to state figures.

Its western neighbor, Bedford County, is the third-most unvaccinated county in the state at 29%, and most of the other eight counties are under 40% vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Mr. Joyce stopped at MacDonald’s Pharmacy, connected to the Fulton County Medical Center, perched on a hill overlooking McConnellsburg, the county seat.

Despite seeing a “slight uptick” in vaccination, “there’s still a lot of hesitancy,” said Aubrey Fry, a pharmacist there. 

Ben Stonesifer, co-owner of MacDonald’s Pharmacy and another pharmacy in nearby Chambersburg, put a video on Facebook to explain to people that “I got mine, so if I got it, you can all do it.”

“I was like, come on, let’s just get ‘er done,” Mr. Stonesifer said. “If we all get vaccinated, we can move on. … I just want to see things get back to normal.”

“And I think the vaccine is the pathway to that,” Mr. Joyce responded.

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