Mistrust of a Coronavirus Vaccine Could Imperil Widespread Immunity

The Four Percent

Almost daily, President Trump and leaders worldwide say they are racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine, in perhaps the most urgent mission in the history of medical science. But the repeated assurances of near-miraculous speed are exacerbating a problem that has largely been overlooked and one that public health experts say must be addressed now: persuading people to actually get the shot.

A growing number of polls find so many people saying they would not get a coronavirus vaccine that its potential to shut down the pandemic could be in jeopardy. Distrust of it is particularly pronounced in African-American communities, which have been disproportionately devastated by the virus. But even many staunch supporters of immunization say they are wary of this vaccine.

“The bottom line is I have absolutely no faith in the F.D.A. and in the Trump administration,” said Joanne Barnes, a retired fourth-grade teacher from Fairbanks, Alaska, who said she was otherwise always scrupulously up-to-date on getting her shots, including those for shingles, flu and pneumonia. “I just feel like there’s a rush to get a vaccine out, so I’m very hesitant.”

Mistrust of vaccines has been on the rise in the U.S. in recent years, a sentiment that resists categorization by political party, educational background or socio-economic demographics. It has been fanned by a handful of celebrities. But now, anti-vaccine groups are attracting a new type of clientele altogether.

Jackie Schlegel, founder of Texans for Vaccine Choice, which presses for school vaccine exemptions, said that her group’s membership had skyrocketed since April. “Our phones are ringing off the hook with people who are saying, ‘I’ve gotten every vaccine, but I’m not getting this one,” she said. “‘How do I opt out?’” She said she often has to assure callers, “‘They’re not coming to your home to force-vax you.’”

The current political and cultural turbulence, abetted by the Trump administration’s frequent disregard for scientific expertise, is only amplifying the diverse underpinnings of vaccine-skeptic positions. They include the terrible legacy of federal medical experiments on African-Americans and other disadvantaged groups; a distrust of Big Pharma; resistance to government mandates like school immunization requirements; adherence to homeopathy and other “natural” medicines; and a clutch of apocalyptic beliefs and conspiracy theories particularly around Covid-19, sometimes perpetuated by celebrities, most recently Kanye West.

“It’s so many of our children that are being vaccinated and paralyzed,” he told Forbes this month. “So when they say the way we’re going to fix Covid is with a vaccine, I’m extremely cautious. That’s the mark of the beast.”

A poll in May by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only about half of Americans said they would be willing to get a coronavirus vaccine. One in five said they would refuse and 31 percent were uncertain. A poll in late June by researchers at the University of Miami found that 22 percent of white and Latino respondents and 42 percent of Black respondents said they agreed with this statement: “The coronavirus is being used to force a dangerous and unnecessary vaccine on Americans.”

“The trust issues are just tremendous in the Black community,” said Edith Perry, a member of the Maryland Community Research Advisory Board, which seeks to ensure that the benefits of health research encompass Black and Latino communities.

The new report on vaccine confidence includes input from epidemiologists and experts in health inequities and communication. The overarching recommendation is that public health agencies should listen to community concerns early in the process, rather than issuing them directives from on high after the fact. They should seek out trusted community leaders to convey people’s uncertainties around research transparency, access, allocation and cost. Those representatives could, in turn, become respected purveyors of updates, to combat what the World Health Organization calls the “infodemic” of vaccine misinformation.

The strongest recommendations were about communities of color. The authors urged that vaccines be provided for free and made available at easy access neighborhood locales: churches, pharmacies, barbershops, schools. Noting that the vaccine would be emerging at a time when protests about systemic racism, not least in health care, have been erupting, the researchers cautioned that if accessibility was perceived to be unfair, the vaccine could become a flash point of continuing unrest. And that perception could heighten mistrust of the vaccine.

“You always have to listen to their concerns,” said Dr. Quinn, the senior associate director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity, who studies issues around health care trust in communities of color.

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