just asking questions

‘There’s No Silver Bullet’: What Polling Trends Reveal About Vaccine Hesitancy

A sign promotes a nearly empty mass-vaccination site at the Pomona Fairplex in early June in Pomona, California. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Vaccine hesitancy and refusal has remained an obstacle for the U.S. effort to end the pandemic since before COVID vaccines were even rolled out. While coronavirus experts and public-health officials had repeatedly warned about the unnecessary consequences of waiting to get vaccinated, the arrival and rapid spread of the transmissible Delta variant has quickly brought that painful lesson home and prompted even louder pleas for America’s millions of unvaccinated residents to get their shots in arms. Intelligencer spoke with Mollyann Brodie, executive director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Public Opinion and Survey Research, to learn about shifting trends in Americans’ willingness to get vaccinated and what it will take for vaccine holdouts to get off the fence.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s profile on the unvaccinated, there are strong partisan differences when it comes to willingness to get a vaccine. How real is this partisan split?
The pandemic started in a very politicalized environment, and that politicalization held through as we moved into the vaccination stage of the pandemic. Political party ID has been a good predictor of where people stand in terms of vaccination, but it’s not the only thing that matters. If you look at any particular demographic group within America, no group is monolithic in its intentions. If I look at groups in America by age, race, party ID, gender, or by insurance status, across all of those groups, there will be a large share who are already vaccinated, there’ll be a share who’s still trying to come to a decision about getting vaccinated, there’ll be a share who says they only want to get vaccinated if they’re required to do so, and there’s a share who says they definitely don’t want to get vaccinated.

Now, those shares vary a little bit by those different demographic categories. If I talk about some groups that are disproportionately represented in the unvaccinated group — like those who self-identify as Republicans, or like those who are young — the majority of those groups are already vaccinated.

Among those who are still unvaccinated, they do tend to fall into two categories. About a third of those who are unvaccinated, which translates to about 10 percent of Americans overall, are people who are still really worried about getting COVID and have a lot of confusion about the vaccines. They’re concerned that the vaccines might be unsafe and that we don’t know enough about the long-term effects. This group of people tends to be more divided politically; about four in ten of the group say they’re Democrats, and about half the group say that they’re Republicans.

The other category makes up about two-thirds of the unvaccinated; that translates to about two in ten of adults nationwide. That group tells us that they definitely aren’t going to get the vaccine, or they’ll only get it if they’re required. That group of people is disproportionately white, with seven in ten of that group being white adults. And that group of people is disproportionately made up of people who self-identify as Republican. Only 12 percent of that group says they’re a Democrat. This group of people, attitudinal-wise, are much less likely to be worried that they would get sick from COVID-19 and they’re more likely to believe that the risks from the vaccine outweigh the risks from getting COVID.

These are basically the COVID vaccine holdouts. Who are the people in this category and what would it take to get shots in their arms?
We’ve talked a lot about what their demographic characteristics are, and I think that in terms of what might still motivate them, again, you have to think about them in two different groups. The group that is sitting on the fence about getting a vaccine are people who really are most likely to be impacted by conversations with physicians or other health-care providers who can really help explain the details of the vaccine and get their questions answered. There are also people in that group that will be more likely to get vaccinated if some of the access barriers can be alleviated. For the other group — the group who’s really been very clear that they don’t have any intention of getting vaccinated — it’s a little bit harder to know what the motivators will be. From our research, we’ve found that their friends and family can be very influential on them. Lastly, there’s a share in that group who, if they’re required to get vaccinated for school, for returning to employment, or for being able to do the kinds of activities they want to do in their lives, might impact their decision.

Still, there’s no silver bullet. There’s going to be different approaches that are going to work for different individuals who have different concerns and worries.

Many employers are now edging closer to requiring employees be vaccinated. What role could that have on shifting these holdouts?
Certainly, there are some people in these holdout groups who say that would matter to them, particularly those who are sitting on the fence. Six percent of adults overall told us explicitly that they would get vaccinated if they’re required to, so you’re really talking about somewhere between 5 to 10 percent of adults nationwide being open to getting vaccinated if they are required to, to return to work, or to return to their activities. But for some people, a vaccine mandate is going to be off-putting, and that’s a trade-off that we’ll have to watch going forward.

What other broad trends have you observed in your polling?
I think it’s also important to recognize that a lot of the people who remain unvaccinated have a lot of misconceptions and hold misinformation about the vaccine. About two-thirds of the unvaccinated hold at least one of five misperceptions about the vaccine, including things like you might get COVID-19 itself from the vaccine, or that the vaccine might change your DNA. There are a lot of myths out there; for the people who are still holdouts, getting their questions answered by a trusted source could really make a difference.

What role could the spread of the Delta variant have on people’s willingness to get a vaccine?
It’s a little too early to tell what the rise of Delta will mean. The early data suggested that the people who were most worried about Delta were those who were vaccinated, and those who are unvaccinated tended to not be as worried about Delta. But again, that was very, very early on as Delta came on the scene, so I think we’re going to be learning more about the potential influence of the Delta variant on vaccination rates in the next couple weeks. I expect that the advent of the Delta variant will be more of a motivator on the group that’s in the “wait and see” category, or the “only if required” group, than it will be on the “definitely not” group. Those who say they will definitely not get the shot have not felt at risk of COVID. And the question will be, is there something different about the Delta variant that makes them feel that they’re at personal risk at that point?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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