Real Progress Is Possible On Vaccine Hesitancy

A shorter version of this column has been published by Axios.

There is a lot to be very worried about when it comes to vaccine hesitancy, but there are also reasons to be optimistic. The shares of hesitant groups that appear totally dug in are relatively modest for a new vaccine people have not seen administered safely in their communities, and many of the reasons people are reluctant to get vaccinated are remediable if they get more information from sources they trust.

Four groups jump out from our new KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor project as vaccine hesitant: Republicans and rural Americans – the Trump base, parroting the president’s COVID denialism; Black adults, and essential workers. In every case more members of each group says they will get the vaccine than say they will not. The shares who are currently hesitant range from 42% for Republicans to 33% for essential workers.

Those are still big numbers, but it appears they can be reduced with more information. For example, 71% of Black adults who are now hesitant say it’s because they are worried about side effects. Once they learn they are mild and confirm that as people are vaccinated they may worry less. The same is true for the 50% of vaccine-hesitant Black adults who worry that they will actually get COVID from the vaccine, another top concern.

25% of Republicans currently say they will “definitely not” get the vaccine. But that leaves three quarters of Republicans who may get the vaccine under various circumstances: 28% of Republicans say they will get it “as soon as possible”; 33% want to “wait and see”; and 10% say they will get it “only if its required”.

Among essential workers – a group that is a particularly important target of vaccination efforts because of their high risk of exposure to the virus – 28% say they will get the vaccine as soon as they can and 36% want to “wait and see”; another 14% say they’ll only get it if required for work or other activities, and 18% say they “definitely will not” get vaccinated. Hesitant essential workers have a variety of worries:  Half (51%) are worried about side effects, and a similar percentage don’t trust the government to make sure the vaccine is safe and effective (50%).

There could be setbacks if there are adverse events that receive wide press coverage that spook already apprehensive groups and these will have to be managed well by public health leaders.  States will also need to allocate vaccine supply equitably to inner city and rural areas and assure distribution in those areas that is accessible for traditionally underserved populations. Distrust of government and institutions in communities of color will remain a real barrier.

It will take effective messaging and information efforts utilizing credible messengers and digital communications techniques to reach these different groups, targeting their different worries about the vaccine. No one message or single messenger is likely to be effective. If those efforts are funded and implemented it does appear that real progress can be made to reduce hesitancy among the most resistant groups.

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