Experts say there is no need to be hesitant about immunization

Multiple tents were in place for a recent drive-through vaccination center at Gary Roosevelt High School in northern Indiana.

Four months into the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, public health experts are increasingly concerned about people who are hesitant about getting the vaccine.

Those most hesitant are conservatives and the way to combat vaccine hesitancy is highlighting the benefits of the vaccine, according to a recent study.

The vaccine rollout, which has been underway since December, has been going well overall because “it’s pretty remarkable” to be able to produce and distribute a vaccine within a year, said Jon Macy, a professor with the IU School of Public Health in Bloomington.

The consensus in the public health community, Macy said, is that if between 70% to 80% of the population gets vaccinated, then the virus should subside. If the vaccine rollout continues at this pace then by this summer the virus should be under control, Macy said.

“We’ve been doing vaccination for infection diseases for a long time. It’s one of our very celebrated public health victories, historically, because they work,” Macy said. “We have a lot of history and a lot of knowledge that (vaccines) work. Once you get to a herd immunity point there’s nowhere for the virus to go.”

In Indiana, the vaccine was rolled out based on age, with the elderly getting vaccinated first because the virus had a devastating impact on older people, said Micah Pollak, an assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest.

But, by using age as the lead factor in who gets vaccinated, it created a gender and race discrepancy, with white people 1.6 times more likely to get vaccinated compared to Black people and women twice as likely to get vaccinated compared to men, Pollak said.

“You inherently already started out behind with minorities and vaccinations by doing it based on age alone,” Pollak said. “Now that it’s open to everyone 16 and above that’s less of a problem, but it’s almost like you end up with a head start for some groups because of just the differences in demographics.”

But, there is concern about those who are hesitant to get the vaccine, Macy said. Right now, Macy said, “it feels like a little bit of a race” to try to get as many people vaccinated and the different variants of COVID-19 that are beginning to spread.

“If we reach a point where we can’t get enough people vaccinated or it takes too long, that means that those who are vaccinated are perhaps no longer protected at the level that they would’ve been otherwise,” Macy said.

A nationwide survey of 1,780 people from mid-February through the end of March found that older people are more likely to get the vaccine, Macy said. Given the impacts of COVID-19 on the elderly and that the vaccine was offered to older people in December, Macy said he wasn’t surprised by that data point.

The study also found that political ideology is a strong predictor in how likely it is a person will get vaccinated, Macy said, with conservatives being less likely to get vaccinated.

A Pew Research Center poll from early March found that 83% of Democrats said they plan to get or already received a COVID-19 vaccine, while 56% of Republicans said they plan to get or already received the COVID-19 vaccine.

The three available vaccines in the U.S. – Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson – are all based on the virus’s genetic instructions for building the spike protein. But, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use messenger RNA – which scientists have been studying for decades – and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses double-stranded DNA in their vaccines, according to the New York Times.

There are other causes of vaccine hesitancy, Pollak said, that aren’t always considered.

For example, people working in the service sector – which are typically minorities – having to weigh getting the vaccine versus the ability to take a day or two off if they have some side effects after vaccination, Pollak said. Or, some low income families may not have proper transportation to get to a vaccination site, he said.

“These are the socio-economic reasons why it might be harder to vaccinate everybody equitably,” Pollak said.

In the nationwide study, taking age and political factors out of the equation, Macy said “the belief” factors have been most telling in who will and won’t get vaccinated. These factors, Macy said, boil down to “the idea that getting vaccinated is a good thing to do” or that the advantages of getting vaccinated out weigh the disadvantages.

“Emphasizing the advantages of the good things that are going to happen are most likely to increase people’s intention to get vaccinated and move them to actually take action,” Macy said. “It protects you, it protects your loved one, it protects your friends, it’s going to make it so we can get back to normal faster.”

At this stage of vaccination, Macy said the messaging around the vaccine has to be more nuanced, particularly after the recent pause in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of rare blood clots in women. The messaging around the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Macy said, could be that women should consider the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

Historically, people getting vaccinated have ended public health emergencies, Macy said.

“Vaccination has historically been a public health success story, and we have an opportunity for another one here,” Macy said.

Alexandra Kukulka writes for the (Merrillville) Post-Tribune.

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