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A Pro-Vaccine Stalwart, McConnell Remains Publicly Puzzled By Hostility To COVID-19 Vaccination

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While Sen. Mitch McConnell is spending his own campaign cash to buy radio time encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations, the leading Republican is avoiding criticizing fellow party members who have stoked skepticism about the shots.

At a stop in Lexington Monday, McConnell — a consistent pro-vaccination voice in his party -- continued to express bewilderment at the widespread hesitancy and hostility to COVID-19 vaccines.

"Honestly, my friends, it never occurred to me that we'd have a challenge getting people to take the vaccine," the minority leader told an audience at the UK School of Pharmacy building. "But that's where we are."

It's a line McConnell critics have seized on as unlikely after the rapid politicization of COVID-19 under former president Donald Trump. Those same detractors point to the powerful senator's reluctance to call out fellow Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has sought to ban school mask mandates.

Asked about his remaining mum on that front, McConnell told WUKY, "I don't think it serves any particular purpose to start criticizing others," repeating that "the best thing for me to do is to say how I feel about it and to try to encourage those people who care what I think to do the right thing."

The senator said he would leave mask and vaccination mandates up to employers and school boards.

"They can weigh the evidence, look at the effectivness, and make those decisions," McConnell advised.

As for additional federal resources for hospitals struggling with an onslaught of new COVID cases, the lawmaker said there is plenty of money coming out of Washington.

"Money's not the problem," McConnell answered. "Reluctance of people to get vaccinated is the problem."

The senator was in town to announce a major infusion of federal dollars into the University of Kentucky's Center for Clinical and Translational Science, or CCTS. The program, focused on accelerating health discoveries and delivering those benefits to the community, is expanding its mission to serve an increasing  number of underserved populations. 

Since its inception in 2006, CCTS has aimed to help research make its way into the harder-to-reach regions of Central Appalachia. But with a new injection of more than $23 million in federal grant funding, the program is looking beyond that original focus. Dr. Britney Smalls has helped train up-and-coming physicians in health disparities through the center's work.

"Now we are going to expand that with this new award to include other marginalized communities, including racial and ethnic minorities, which is going to be a comprehensive endeavor to reduce health disparities within our commonwealth," she said.

The clinical and translation science center has proven particularly vital during the pandemic, playing a key role in building up the vaccine trial unit that enabled a UK-based phase-three study of the Johnson & Johnson shot.

The new grant ensures continued support for the center over the next four years.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.