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  • Catherine Devlin

The Vaccine is Here, but Some Americans Aren’t Getting in Line

As the world passes the one year mark of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a “global pandemic,” the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has officially authorized and recommended three COVID-19 vaccines. But not everyone is lining up for their inoculation. In fact, a Gallup poll reveals that only about 65% of Americans are willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccine mistrust is not a new concept, and long standing opponents of vaccines are using the anxiety towards COVID-19 to recruit new followers via social media. Other groups that appear reluctant to receive the vaccine include Republican voters, those without college degrees, and communities of color. While the newness of the vaccine may cause many to distrust it, medical officials assure Americans that the inoculation is safe and effective.

Vaccines have been met with distrust for centuries. Early eighteenth century religious leaders warned that the devil was behind the new technology, and the mid-nineteenth century Anti-Vaccination League protested compulsory vaccination laws in London. In more recent history, panic followed a 1998 article that suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The article has since been withdrawn and disproven, and the author has been found guilty of deliberate fraud and lost his medical license. Nevertheless, a strong fear of vaccines persists, and it appears to be contagious. In the past 20 years, the number of Americans who believe it is important to vaccinate their children has fallen from 94% to 84%.

Many of the arguments against the COVID-19 vaccines mirror criticism of prior vaccines. For instance, a common complaint is that vaccines are a money-making scam by big pharmaceutical companies. Long-time “anti-vaxxers” have now pivoted their energy towards harnessing unease regarding the COVID-19 to criticize vaccines in general. The Center for Countering Digital Hate argues that anti-vaxxers are using COVID-19 “to create long-lasting distrust in the effectiveness, safety, and necessity for vaccination,” using a three step strategy of which includes suggesting that COVID-19 is not dangerous, claiming that the vaccine is, and concluding that supporters of the vaccine cannot be trusted. This messaging appears to be effective. The top 150 online anti-vax accounts have collectively gained over ten million followers since 2019.

A recent post on the “Vaccines Exposed” Facebook page claimed that the COVID vaccine was deadly and that children were having cancer “injected into them #facts.” This claim, of course, is not “#facts” or even close to factually correct. This then begs the question, where are these “anti-vaxxers” getting their information? One of the most virulent spreaders of anti-vaxxer ideology is Facebook. The World Health Organization was so concerned about Facebook’s role in the resurgence of measles because of decreased vaccinations that it partnered with the social media platform in a 2019 campaign designed to stop the spread of misinformation.

Social media platforms like Facebook are especially conducive to the spread of anti-vaccine information because their algorithms promote posts with high engagement. Since controversial posts tend to garner the most responses, they also tend to be seen by the most people. Tim Kendall, Facebook’s former director of monetization, explained this pattern saying, “the algorithm maximizes your attention by hitting you repeatedly with content that triggers your strongest emotions.” Because posts criticizing the COVID-19 vaccines tend to elicit strong reactions, both from those in support of and against the vaccine, these posts are pushed by the algorithm and seen by more people. Additionally, because people are so desperate to have answers about the virus and vaccine, they are more likely to believe or repeat any information they hear. Rory Smith, research manager at First Draft News, explains that there is a “data deficit” regarding the vaccine since the demand for information is higher than the supply of credible information. This void is quickly filled by the clickable articles that cover social media.

Others’ concerns are tied to the specific COVID-19 vaccine, rather than vaccines in general. For instance, a common concern regards the vaccine being the fastest developed inoculation in history. The scientific community has addressed this worry. Dr. Paul Offit, director of vaccine education at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explains that this atypical development speed stems from atypical support. More than $24 billion was spent on the vaccine across more than 180 labs. Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID Director and Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, further attributed the speed of the vaccine’s development to “exquisite scientific advances.”

Reluctance in regards to receiving the vaccine seems to divide among party lines. In a January 2021 poll, only 45% of Republicans reported a willingness to receive the vaccine while 83% of Democrats said they would receive the shot. This divide may stem from the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Republican voters have tended to emphasize safety measures less than their Democratic counterparts. Education also seems to play a role in willingness to be vaccinated, with 60% of Americans without college degrees stating their willingness to receive the vaccine while 77% of those with a college degree are willing.

Another community that is reluctant to receive the vaccines are communities of color. In this case, the unwillingness likely stems from centuries of systemic medical racism, as well as worse access to healthcare in general. Because communities of color have developed a distrust of the American medical system over time, Dr. Elana MacDonald describes the process of restoring Black communities’ faith in the medical system as “a very steep upward climb.” MacDonald is working to educate members of the Black community on the importance of the vaccine, noting that the past should be acknowledged and apologized for, but should not hold the community back. Communities of color may also be reporting lower percentages of vaccine willingness because of a lack of access to information about the vaccine, as well as limited access to the vaccine itself. For instance, a recent proposal to use the Eagles’ stadium as a mass vaccination site left some council members concerned that the drive-through site would disproportionately benefit more privileged communities who are more likely to have cars. Dr. Delana Wardlaw, a black doctor from Philadelphia who works to educate about the vaccine, reasoned that the stadium would be an acceptable vaccination site only if the city continues to “ensure that community vaccination sites remain in place.” Another reason that Black populations may be underrepresented in current numbers of those who have received the vaccine is that they are underrepresented in the health care sector, whose members were the first to receive the vaccination. Even despite these barriers, the gap between white and nonwhite views on the vaccine is closing. In September 2020, 54% of white Americans were willing to get the vaccine while only 40% of nonwhite Americans were. Now, the number of white Americans has risen to 67% and the number of nonwhite Americans has risen to 62%.

The COVID-19 vaccine is our best hope at ending the pandemic. While distribution issues are still being worked out, it is important that when vaccines become widely available, people are willing to be inoculated. Increased information campaigns and accessibility may be the key to educating Americans about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. The anti-vax movement spans back to the beginning of our nation, but it has no place in our future.


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