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The next stage of the vaccine drive: Persuading the hesitant

Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll finds increased acceptance for vaccine since December

Nurse Esther McCollin prepared a dose of the Moderna vaccine at a mobile site in Roxbury last month.
Nurse Esther McCollin prepared a dose of the Moderna vaccine at a mobile site in Roxbury last month.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

At first, Rodney Gerald wasn’t sure about getting a coronavirus vaccine. He’d heard stories about side effects and sore arms, and didn’t want to miss any time from work.

Then his mother got vaccinated, and he soon followed her example.

“I was like, ‘If you got it done, I’m going to get it done. What am I scared for?’ ”the 54-year-old Brockton resident said as he exited a recent appointment at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury.

A new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll suggests an increasing number of people like Gerald are warming to the COVID-19 vaccines after initial anxieties. The survey of 500 state residents found that more than 78 percent have either already been vaccinated or intend to be as soon as possible. That’s a big jump from December — before the vaccines were widely available — when a similar poll found that just over half of people would take the shot as soon as possible, and nearly a third said they would delay vaccination.

Public health specialists hope that experiences like Gerald’s will be increasingly common as the state and the nation approach the next phase in the high-stakes global vaccination drive. After weeks of managing the intense demand for a scarce supply of vaccine, officials expect to soon face a new and potentially greater test: persuading the holdouts that they too should get a shot.

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“I think we’ll be startled by how different the conversations will be in two months,” said Alison Buttenheim, a University of Pennsylvania health policy professor and the scientific director at the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics. “Pretty soon, I would say in four to six weeks, it’s going to be about finding people and persuading people.”

Those efforts could prove crucial to the goal of vaccinating enough of the population to conquer the pandemic. Large numbers of employees at a number of public safety agencies have declined vaccinations at work, stoking concerns that the state may fall short of its goal.

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Public health officials say they are optimistic that outreach and persuasion initiatives — some of which are already underway in communities across the state — will convince many people who are on the fence. There may also be a snowball effect as more and more people get vaccinated, convincing others that they should as well, Governor Charlie Baker has argued.

“My hope is as we continue to vaccinate people, and as we continue to make it possible for others to get vaccinated, that some of the people who just don’t want to be first will take a look at their friends and their neighbors and their co-workers and their families and others and say, ‘You know what? I’m okay with this,’ ” Baker said at a recent briefing.

As the Massachusetts vaccine drives gains speed, there are signs that acceptance is growing. In the December Suffolk University/Globe poll, nearly a third of respondents said they would not get their shots right away, preferring to see how others react to the shots first. In the results released Thursday, just 12 percent said they will wait to see others take it while less than 8 percent said they would not take a vaccine at all.

If the latest poll’s findings hold true, the state will more than exceed its goal of inoculating 4.1 million residents — about three-quarters of the adult population, and nearly double the more than 2.3 million people who have already received at least one shot.

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It is still unclear how many people must be immunized to fully blunt the virus, because it depends on several uncertain factors — including the infectiousness rate and how long immunization lasts. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has pegged the figure at as high as 85 percent of the population, and others have said the threshold could be even higher.

Michael Curry, president of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, said it is especially important to vaccinate high numbers of people if the vaccinated can still transmit the disease. If vaccinated people can still carry COVID-19 without getting sick, no one will be completely safe until they’re vaccinated themselves, putting an even greater premium on ensuring communities are immunized.

“We can’t leave any community behind,” Curry said. “It would mean pockets of communities will still be dealing with death and high infection rates and hospitalizations, especially those populations with higher comorbidities and higher-age populations.”

Until vaccines are opened to the entire general public, it will be difficult to know for sure how many people are deliberately holding off on getting a shot. But in recent weeks, vaccinations have begun to slow considerably among people 75 or older as the vaccination rate hit about 80 percent of the demographic — possibly suggesting that age group is nearing the upper boundary of the number that will eagerly get vaccinated.

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Communities of color have been at the center of burgeoning persuasion initiatives in Massachusetts, an effort to address distrust of the medical system and the government among many Black and immigrant populations. The Suffolk/Globe poll found that Black and Latino respondents were less likely to be vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated as soon as possible than white and Asian residents.

Many surveys, including the Globe’s, have found that Republicans are among the most likely group to say they do not plan to get a vaccine — a trend that some experts say is related to the partisan attitudes that have developed around the use of masks, business closures, and other pandemic-era politics.

“Anti-science is now a major platform of the Republican Party,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccination expert at the Baylor College of Medicine. “I don’t know how we ever got there, but that is what happened. . . . The Republican Party has got to figure out a way to chop off this anti-science piece because it never used to be this way.”

The state Republican Party is not planning any outreach initiatives to encourage vaccine use, said MassGOP spokesman Evan Lips.

The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are complex and multifaceted, cutting across demographics while holding particular sway among certain populations.

Some people are strongly resolute, saying there is nothing that can be done to convince them the vaccine is safe.

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“I don’t trust it. I think the whole thing was some kind of crazy political thing,” said Jennifer White, 48, of Andover, who did not vote in the last election but said she would have preferred Donald Trump to President Biden. White said she is “not an antivaxxer,” but worried that “we don’t know what the effects are going to be down the road.”

Those who are cautious about the vaccines but not fully resistant are more common. Some have questions about how the vaccines work, or don’t think they are at enough risk of the virus to warrant getting a shot.

Specialists also note that another, less obvious cohort will require some attention to ensure a high vaccination rate: those who say they want an appointment, but may need coaxing to actually make one and follow through.

Vaccine concerns can extend even to the front lines of the pandemic. Anestine Bentick, a lead medical assistant at South Boston Community Health Center, was among the first to become eligible for the vaccine but held out for several weeks. As a Caribbean woman, she said, she was uneasy about the nation’s history of medical mistreatment of Black people. She was especially skeptical of vaccines that were developed and approved so quickly through a federal program called Operation Warp Speed.

“That name alone turned me off,” Bentick said.

But having seen the virus’s debilitating effect on patients, she eventually decided it was better to get vaccinated.

Thomas Sequist, chief patient experience and equity officer at the Mass General Brigham health system, said success in persuading people to get vaccinated will ultimately hinge on communities and individuals hearing from trusted voices including doctors or pastors, and ensuring that appointments are easy to access.

“The approach is the same. You may have different trusted messengers, but the approach is the same,” Sequist said. “The high-level message is that the vaccines are a pathway to living a normal life again.”

Anissa Gardizy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.