Tina Kleinfeldt, a surgical recovery nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, at her home in Levittown, N.Y. on Dec. 18, 2020. (Sarah Blesener/The New York Times)
Ever since the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine began last spring, upbeat announcements were stalked by ominous polls: No matter how encouraging the news, growing numbers of people said they would refuse to get the shot.
The time frame was dangerously accelerated, many people warned. The vaccine was a scam from Big Pharma, others said. A political ploy by the Trump administration, many Democrats charged. The internet pulsed with apocalyptic predictions from longtime vaccine opponents, who decried the new shot as the epitome of every concern they’d ever put forth.
But over the past few weeks, as the vaccine went from a hypothetical to a reality, something happened. Fresh surveys show attitudes shifting and a clear majority of Americans now eager to get vaccinated.
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In polls by Gallup, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Research Center, the portion of people saying they are now likely or certain to take the vaccine has grown from about 50% this summer to more than 60%, and in one poll 73% — a figure that approaches what some public health experts say would be sufficient for herd immunity.
Resistance to the vaccine is certainly not vanishing. Misinformation and dire warnings are gathering force across social media. At a meeting on December 20, members of an advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited strong indications that vaccine denouncements as well as acceptance are growing, so they could not predict whether the public would gobble up limited supplies or take a pass.
But the attitude improvement is striking. A similar shift on another heated pandemic issue was reflected in a different Kaiser poll this month. It found that nearly 75% of Americans are now wearing masks when they leave their homes.
The change reflects a constellation of recent events: the uncoupling of the vaccine from Election Day; clinical trial results showing about 95% efficacy and relatively modest side effects for the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna; and the alarming surge in new coronavirus infections and deaths.
“As soon as it is my turn to get the vaccine, I will be there front and center! I am very excited and hopeful,” said Joanne Barnes, 68, a retired elementary school teacher from Fairbanks, Alaska, who told The New York Times last summer that she would not get it.
What changed her mind? “The Biden administration, returning to listening to science and the fantastic stats associated with the vaccines,” she replied.
The lure of the vaccines’ modest quantities also can’t be underestimated as a driver of desire, somewhat like the must-have frenzy generated by a limited-edition Christmas gift, according to public opinion experts.
That sentiment can also be seen in the shifting nature of some of the skepticism. Rather than just targeting the vaccine itself, eyebrows are being raised across the political spectrum over who will get it first — which rich individuals and celebrities, demographic groups or industries?
But the grim reality of the pandemic — with more than 200,000 new cases and some 3,000 deaths daily — and the wanness of this holiday season are perhaps among the biggest factors.
“More people have either been affected or infected by COVID,” said Rupali Limaye, an expert on vaccine behavior at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They know someone who had a severe case or died.”
Limaye concluded: “They are fatigued and want to get back to their normal lives.”
A barrage of feel-good media coverage, including rapt attention given to leading scientists and politicians when they get jabbed and joyous scrums surrounding local health care workers who become the first to be vaccinated, has amplified the excitement, public opinion experts say.
There remain notable discrepancies among demographic groups. The divide between women and men has become pronounced, with women being more hesitant. Black people remain the most skeptical racial group, although their acceptance is inching up: In September, a Pew Research poll said that only 32% of Black people were willing to get the vaccine, while the latest poll shows a rise to 42%. And though people of all political persuasions are warming to the vaccine, more Republicans than Democrats view the shot suspiciously.
The association between vaccine attitudes and political affiliation is worrisome to many behavioral experts, who fear that vaccine uptake will become tied to partisan views, impeding the achievement of a broad immunity.
“We’ve seen a growth among both Democrats and Republicans about their intent to vaccinate,” said Matthew Motta, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University who studies political opinions and vaccine views. “But it’s twice the size in Democrats,” who, he added, had been souring on the vaccine following President Donald Trump’s avowal that it would arrive by Election Day.
A brighter indication, he said, is that two-thirds of the public say they are at least somewhat confident that a coronavirus vaccine will be distributed in a way that is fair, up from 52% in September.
The most pronounced pockets of resistance include rural residents and people between the ages of 30 and 49.
Timothy Callaghan, a scholar at the Southwest Rural Health Research Center at Texas A&M School of Public Health, said that rural residents tend to be conservative and Republican, characteristics that also show up among the vaccine-hesitant. They also include immigrants and day laborers, many of whom do not have college degrees or even high school diplomas and so may be more wary of vaccine science.
“They appear less likely to wear masks, less likely to work from home and there is an opposition to evidence-based practices,” Callaghan said.
The resistance also springs from their hampered access to health care in remote areas. In addition, the need to take off several hours of work from the inflexible demands of farming for travel and recovery from vaccine side effects makes the shots seem even less compelling, he added.
About 35% of adults between 30 and 49 overall expressed skepticism about the vaccine, according to the Kaiser poll. Dr. Scott Ratzan, whose vaccine surveys in New York with the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health echo findings similar to the national polls, noted that this group doesn’t keep up on flu shots either. They are well out of the age range for routine vaccines.
“There is no normalizing or habit for this age group to get vaccinated,” he said.
Black people have remained the most resistant to taking a coronavirus vaccine, largely because of the history of abusive research on them by white doctors. But their willingness to consider it is ticking up. In the Kaiser poll, the share of Black respondents who believe the vaccine will be distributed fairly has nearly doubled, to 62% from 32%.
Mike Brown, who is Black, manages the Shop Spa, a large barbershop with a Black and Latino clientele in Hyattsville, Maryland. This summer he told The Times that he was happy to sit back and watch others get the vaccine, while he bided his time.
That was then.
“The news that it was 95% effective sold me,” Brown said. “The side effects sound like what you get after a bad night of drinking and you hurt the next day. Well, I’ve had many of those and I can deal with that to get rid of the face masks.”
Still, he says, many customers remain skeptical. He tells them: “What questions do you have that you’re leery about? Just do your investigation and follow the science! Because if you’re just talking about what you won’t do, you’re becoming part of the problem.”
He does see progress. “A couple of people who were more militant about not taking it are more quiet now,” he said. “The seeds are being planted.”
Another group that has been uncertain about taking the vaccine is health care workers, who typically have high rates of acceptance for established vaccines. In recent weeks, some hospital executives have said that many on their staffs were balking. ProPublica reported that a hospital in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas had to offer some allotted doses to other medical workers in the area, because an insufficient number of their own workers came forward. A sheriff’s deputy and a state senator got in line.
But other hospitals say that staff time slots for the vaccine are becoming a hot commodity.
For months, Tina Kleinfeldt, a surgical recovery nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, a hospital in the Northwell Health network, had absolutely no intention of getting the vaccine until long after the science and side effects had been established.
Last week, she was randomly offered a rare vaccination slot. Still she refused, despite the admonitions of envious colleagues.
Then she began thinking of all the COVID-19 patients she had cared for and the new ones she would inevitably encounter. She thought about her husband and three children. She thought: Well, I can always cancel the appointment at the last minute, right?
Then she realized that doses were still so scarce that she might not get another opportunity soon. So she said yes. She became the first nurse on her unit to get the shot.
Afterward, she felt some muscle soreness at the site of injection. But she also felt elated, excited and relieved.
“I felt like I did a good thing, for myself, my family, my patients, the world,” Kleinfeldt said. “And now I hope everyone will get it. Isn’t that crazy?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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