Monday, March 20, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

The Small Screen’s Biggest Libertarian Joins America’s Vaccine Push

Best known for his turn as Pawnee town official Ron Swanson, the actor and real-life Midwesterner Nick Offerman brings the campaign to improve U.S. vaccine confidence a bit of star power.

Best known for his turn as Pawnee town official Ron Swanson, the actor and real-life Midwesterner Nick Offerman brings the campaign to improve U.S. vaccine confidence a bit of star power.

Actor and professional woodworker Nick Offerman testifies remotely at a Wednesday May 26, 2021, congressional hearing on boosting vaccine confidence. (Screenshot of YouTube video via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — More than half a century after Elvis got the polio vaccine on "The Ed Sullivan Show," policymakers are well aware of what the right celebrity endorsement can do to move the proverbial needle.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee flexed that same muscle Wednesday as the United States hurtles toward its July 4 goal of vaccinating 70% of the country against Covid-19.

Delivering remote testimony before the committee this morning, the actor Nick Offerman did not technically speak in the voice of his anti-bureaucracy TV character Ron Swanson but, with his trademark deadpan delivery, still achieved the effect of giving his everyman’s take on the pandemic.

“As an actor and woodworker, I will not be offering medical advice today. I leave that to the scientists and medical experts on the panel, aka the 'smart people.' Instead, I would like to represent the rest of the citizens who are not epidemiologists, also known as 'the ignorant,'" Offerman said. “Ignorance is an area in which I can claim some authority and it is from that perch I would like to communicate why it is extremely important that we all get vaccinated.”

On NBC’s "Parks and Recreation," Offerman’s former role as Ron — a gruff but gooey-centered government employee resistant to all authority except for the makers of Lagavulin whisky — made the real-life Midwesterner a good conduit to amp vaccine appeal to the masses.

From the start of the Covid-19 crisis, authorities in the U.S. have struggled to turn conversations about the virus and the vaccine from one focused on politics to a one about public health. About half of all American adults fully vaccinated today, leaving the country at a tenuous corner to reach its Independence Day benchmark.

Offerman said he hoped his appearance not just as an actor with a familiar face but as a small business owner — he runs a custom furniture business in Los Angeles — would encourage people to get the shot and realize that they can truly start resuming something that looks like “life as normal” if they do.

With his employees all vaccinated and his furniture business is back open, Offerman said it’s back to normal in the wood shop — albeit still following CDC guidelines on masks and social distancing.

Additionally, because of the ubiquity of vaccines in California, he touted the recent reopening of his nonprofit organization Would Works, which teaches woodworking skills to people experiencing homelessness, after being closed for over a year.

Like many Americans, Offerman said he is part of a family with members who have been resistant to getting the vaccine because of disinformation and misinformation campaigns that have dominated social media. Back home in Minooka, Illinois, Offerman has an extended family of nearly 40 people. When one lawmaker asked him Wednesday how he works on persuading those tough cases, he described what amounted to a rather Swanson-like pragmatism: Tell them you love them, explain they won’t be able to see each other until everyone is vaccinated, stick to that and hope their desire to see their own family overrides the disinformation.

“Medicine doesn’t care who you voted for. We amazing humans have created a vaccine that serves the common good. The vaccine doesn’t take sides unless you count alive versus dead,” Offerman said.

Hesitancy around taking the vaccine for many in America stems in part from the speed with which it was developed and manufactured. First, the vaccine was not developed from zero; researchers the world over and including at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease in the U.S. had already spent more than 40 years studying SARS, the family of respiratory viruses from which coronavirus sprang. Though it would normally take anywhere from 10 to 15 years on average to produce a vaccine from start to finish, with the world suddenly paralyzed by Covid-19, it was all hands on deck to get the vaccines rolling.

Elvis Presley receives the polio vaccination in 1956. (Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives, via Courthouse News)

Advanced discoveries in genomic sequencing were an integral part in the success being enjoyed today.

“Nobody took a shortcut. It’s just that we built a highway and that’s why streamlining the process, by cutting some of the bureaucratic process increased efficiency,” explained Saad Omer, director at the Yale Institute for Global Health.

Researchers worked smarter, Omer said, especially when it came to setting up clinical trials. For example, if you typically need 30,000 people for one clinical trial, you might set up 30 sites with 1,000 participants at that location. But that can make things move slower as gathering that many people at each site poses its own challenge. So, during trials for the Covid-19 vaccine, there were multiple sites, crisscrossing locations, where, in some instances, there would be 120 sites for 250 people to register, a much easier goal.

“The processes to ensure safety and efficacy were time tested,” Omer said, noting as well that data collection and trials were guided by strict regulations and that each site had to be approved by an independent safety monitoring board beyond the Food and Drug Administration’s own review. “While these trials were going on, there was weekly ongoing safety review and efficacy review.”

Overall, vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson have produced overwhelmingly positive results with the drugs providing nearly 100% protection from severe Covid-19 infection. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published May 25 confirmed that, between Jan. 1 and April 30, roughly 10,000 people spanning 46 states reported contracted Covid even after being vaccinated but even with those breakthrough cases, with more people vaccinated daily, overall infections in the U.S. are plummeting.

And to end the pandemic, that is precisely what must occur.

“We have to get this clear messaging to all of our citizens who are confused by the information they are getting,” Offerman said. “That comes from a variety of reasons, misinformation, conspiracy theories, mistrust . And I think we just have to turn up the volume on the clear information that it’s safe, everyone should do it, it’s your duty as a family member. If you love yourself, your family, your community, its beholden on all of us to step up and be a good neighbor and family and shout that to the hills.”

On Capitol Hill, a divide over vaccines and mask-wearing has come to a partisan head. In recent days, going farther even than the mask-averse Senator Rand Paul, Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has taken the hyperbolic approach of comparing masks to the stars that Jews were forced to wear in the Holocaust.

Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado who serves as chairwoman of the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, asked Offerman bluntly during the hearing Wednesday if he had any advice on how to convince her colleagues across the aisle to get vaccinated.

“With the information we have, the decent thing to do is to pitch in for the common good regardless of any other misinformation,” Offerman said before offering those who are resistant a few tantalizing options like a “cookie” or “lottery ticket.”

“I’ll take you down the street for a glass of single malt, if that’s what it’ll take,” Offerman said. "I’ll be happy to pick up that bar tab."

For the first time since June 2020, the CDC reported on May 24 that the U.S. is now down to fewer than 30,000 cases of Covid-19 per day, or about 8 infections for every 100,000 people. Daily hospitalization rates have also started a sharp descent and deaths are now hovering at about 578 per day. On average about 1.8 million people are receiving their shots each day.

Though mask rules and social-distancing restrictions are generally easing across the nation, with Memorial Day weekend looming, CDC director Rachelle Walensky urged during a White House press conference Wednesday that the unvaccinated keep their masks on and their distance from crowds. It is still a dangerous time for the unvaccinated.

“We are on a good downward path, but we are not out of the woods yet,” Walensky said.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.