My wife got her first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine last week. I have preregistered for mine and am waiting for a slot to open. That puts the Jacobys squarely with the great majority of Americans — 77 percent, according to data compiled by the Delphi Group at Carnegie Mellon University — who have either been vaccinated or want to be.
But that still leaves a sizable fraction of Americans who aren’t planning to get the vaccine, and their reluctance seems to correlate with partisanship. A recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that 41 percent of self-identified Republicans, and 49 percent of Republican men, say they do not intend to get a coronavirus shot. By contrast, just 11 percent of self-identified Democrats balk at the vaccine. Other surveys show comparable results: The percentage of Republicans saying they won’t get the vaccine was 33 in a CBS News poll, 36 in a Monmouth University poll, and 28 in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
Coverage of this phenomenon has not been sympathetic. “Half of Republican men say they don’t want the vaccine. They’re mooching off the rest of us,” announced a Los Angeles Times headline. A Washington Post column on the subject began: “Is Fox News going to get its viewers killed?” By contrast, when surveys during the winter showed that large numbers of Black Americans were unwilling to get vaccinated, many in the media attributed the findings to “decades of mistreatment” and wariness toward a system that “historically brutalized Black people.”
Yet in the last few weeks, resistance to getting the vaccine has largely vanished among Black people. In the NPR/PBS poll, for example, 73 percent of Black respondents said that they planned to get the shot or had done so, slightly more than the 70 percent of white people who responded positively. CBS News reported last week that “today Black and Hispanic Americans are as likely as white Americans to say they’ll get vaccinated if they haven’t been already.”
Don’t be surprised when the Republican opposition now getting so much attention likewise turns out to be short-lived.
As it is, a majority of Republicans aged 65 and up have already been vaccinated. Those expressing reluctance are concentrated among the under-45s — and most of them aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine. As more and more middle-aged and older Republicans get their shots, more and more younger ones will grow comfortable about doing so too.
There are some idiotic conspiracy theories out there about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Some people imagine that microchips are implanted into everyone who gets vaccinated, or that the disease has been spread by 5G cellular towers. There are QAnon cultists who insist the vaccines are really bioweapons designed to alter people’s DNA.
Conspiracy theories are an unfortunate part of the human condition. Especially in an era of hyperpartisan polarization, it doesn’t take a pandemic to incubate lunatic fantasies: Think of the Republicans who fell for the claim that Barack Obama wasn’t a US-born citizen, or the Democrats who believed George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks.
But conspiracy theories are not behind the hesitancy of most Americans who don’t want to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
In the CBS News poll, respondents who said they might not or would not get the vaccine were asked for their reason(s). A solid majority (58 percent) said they thought the vaccine is still too untested and were “waiting to see what happens.” The next most common reason was concern about allergies or side effects (47 percent). Those aren’t irrational reasons for caution or skepticism, particularly with regard to a vaccine that was developed and brought to market faster than any in history. Such anxieties will fade as the vaccinated population expands.
In a different category are those who say they don’t trust the government, a reason given by 37 percent of the poll respondents who answered “maybe” or “no” when asked if they would get the COVID shot. It isn’t hard to imagine some diehard young Republicans expressing suspicion about a vaccine being heavily promoted by the new Democratic president and his administration. How different is that, after all, from then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris voicing similar suspicion last fall, when the president talking up the vaccine was Donald Trump?
The former president, whose Operation Warp Speed facilitated the miraculously swift development of the vaccine, urges his supporters to get vaccinated. “It’s a great vaccine, it’s a safe vaccine,” he said on Fox News last week. He’s right. Most Americans already agree. And sooner rather than later, all but the most thickheaded Republicans will be on board too.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.