Two-thirds of Americans say they would likely accept a coronavirus vaccine for themselves or their children, according to a national survey released Thursday that shows wide variation by geography, political affiliation, and race or ethnicity.
The survey’s lead author said the findings don’t bode well for the vaccine efforts, with some experts estimating that 70 percent to 90 percent of people would need to be vaccinated to get the virus under control.
Still, the survey provides a more encouraging number than a poll in May that found half of Americans would reject a vaccine against coronavirus.
“We have our work cut out for us,” said Dr. Roy H. Perlis, director of the Center for Quantitative Health at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We had a vaccine problem in this country long before COVID, with falling rates of childhood vaccination, with difficulty getting people to get a flu vaccine.”
In the recent survey, acceptance of a vaccine against COVID-19 was slightly higher in Massachusetts, where 71 percent of adults said they are “extremely” or “somewhat” likely to get vaccinated.
Democrats were also more likely to support vaccinations than Republicans and independents, men more likely than women. And the survey reflected a racial divide: Only 52 percent of Black respondents said they’d likely take the vaccine, versus 67 percent of whites, 71 percent of Latinos, and 77 percent of Asian-Americans.
Conducted July 10-26 by researchers at Harvard, Rutgers, Northeastern, and Northwestern universities, the survey questioned a representative sampling of 19,000 people in 50 states and Washington, D.C. Thursday’s report was the seventh in a series of surveys conducted since April to gauge public attitudes surrounding COVID-19.
“A surprising number of people” were disinclined to get a coronavirus vaccine, said Perlis, the survey’s lead author. If that many refused vaccination once it becomes available, he said, it would be difficult to achieve “the ultimate goal” of herd immunity, which occurs when so many people have immunity to a virus that it cannot spread to others.
But not every vaccine expert saw dire consequences in the survey results. One was pleasantly surprised that as many as 66 percent expressed acceptance of the vaccine, calling that finding “encouraging.” Others said it was premature to ask people to support a vaccine before any have proven their safety and efficacy.
“It’s natural for people to be skeptical of vaccines that have not been tested,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, head of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who is developing a prospective coronavirus vaccine. “Not a single vaccine in the world has proven itself yet.”
Barouch also said that herd immunity could be achieved with 50 percent to 75 percent of the population vaccinated, but it depends on how effective the vaccine proves to be.
Dr. Peter Jay Hotez, codirector of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, said reluctance to accept a coronavirus vaccine “is a consequence of very poor messaging, or absent messaging, from the White House and Operation Warp Speed,” the government’s program to produce a vaccine as quickly as possible.
By failing to explain how safety can be ensured even on a faster timeline, the administration has played into the hands of a “very strong antivaccine lobby,” Hotez said, which he said is now financed by far-right groups and growing in influence.
But Dr. Barbara A. Pahud, research director of pediatric infectious diseases at the Children’s Mercy medical center in Kansas City, Mo., was elated by the survey results.
“Those numbers are very encouraging,” said Pahud, who is leading the Kansas City site in the upcoming clinical trial of AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate. In her experience, public acceptance of a coronavirus vaccine had seemed to be about 50 percent, she said, but the survey findings suggest a shift in attitude as the pandemic persists. “Maybe this pandemic is what we needed,” she said. “Maybe people have witnessed what a disease can do when we don’t have a vaccine.”
If two-thirds of Americans end up taking a coronavirus vaccine, that would be an improvement over the flu vaccine, taken by fewer than half of American adults, she noted.
Several experts were deeply concerned by the survey’s finding about low vaccine acceptance among Black people, who have been especially hard hit by the pandemic.
Dr. David Henderson, psychiatrist-in-chief at Boston Medical Center, said their hesitancy reflects a legacy of fraudulent research that harmed the Black community. Encouraging them to take the vaccine will require working with community leaders and institutions, he said, rather than having an outsider saying, “You need to do this.”
Political affiliation also plays a role, the survey found. Sixty-two percent of Republicans and independents say they are likely to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared with 75 percent of Democrats.
And even though President Trump has pushed for rapid vaccine development, his supporters are apparently not buying it. Among those who expressed the greatest trust in Trump, only 61 percent said they’d likely get vaccinated.
“When you ask people a question about coronavirus,” said Perlis, the survey’s lead author, “there’s a tendency to answer based on your politics. . . . We need to distinguish in people’s minds that getting a vaccination is something you want to do for your health, not as a political statement.”
Dr. Paul A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, questioned the survey’s suggestion of a link between political affiliation and vaccine resistance.
“The true antivaccine activist is not a Democrat or a Republican,” he said. The group includes people on the right who want the government off their backs, and people on the left who want “everything natural, the crunchy granola crowd.”
He distinguished between vaccine skeptics, who want to see the evidence, and vaccine cynics, who reject vaccines regardless of the evidence. Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and author of books debunking the antivaccine movement, described himself as a vaccine skeptic, “unlikely” to accept a theoretical, yet-to-be-proven vaccine. And he estimated that only about 2 percent of Americans are hard-core vaccine cynics.
In Massachusetts and 10 other states, more than 70 percent of people expressed willingness to accept a vaccine. The others are Arizona, California, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington. The rate was above 70 percent in Washington, D.C., as well.
In 10 states, fewer than 60 percent of adults said they’d likely get vaccinated: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
The geographical differences partially reflected political affiliations, but other factors also come into play, including education, income, and age, Perlis said. In Florida, for example, 70 percent said they’d likely accept the vaccine, possibly reflecting the higher numbers of elderly people who are used to getting regular flu vaccines.
Perlis said he was mystified by the gender difference the survey turned up: 71 percent of men were likely vaccine accepters, compared with just 62 percent of women. He plans to study it further.