Mothers are more hesitant than fathers to get their kids vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a new study from researchers at Harvard and Northeastern, raising concerns that family decision-makers could be swayed by misinformation as availability of the vaccines expands to younger children.
The survey, which shows that more than one-quarter of mothers and more than one-tenth of fathers are resistant to vaccinating their children, comes as the US Food and Drug Administration on Monday expanded the authorized use of Pfizer’s vaccine to those as young as 12, dropping the age limit from 16.
Twenty-seven percent of mothers said they were “extremely unlikely” to vaccinate their children, compared with 11 percent of fathers, according to the survey — conducted between April 1 and May 3 across all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
The percentage of mothers who were hesitant remained stable from a February survey, while the percentage of fathers who were hesitant dropped slightly, from 14 percent.
Researchers from the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, which includes Northeastern University, Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Rutgers University, released the results last week.
The researchers said in a report on the survey that the finding was “particularly notable since initial research suggests that mothers’ attitudes appear to have a stronger influence than those of fathers on whether their children get vaccinated.”
Matthew Simonson, a Northeastern University graduate student who was the lead author of the report, said, “It’s possible that mothers are more used to thinking about this issue beforehand and thus are attuned to the concerns that are circulating out there — and perhaps more plugged into the misinformation about the vaccine that’s on the Web.”
“It’s also possible that some of this misinformation is deliberately targeting mothers because mothers are perceived to be the primary decision-makers,” he said.
The survey also found that younger mothers were more resistant to vaccinating their children than older mothers, with nearly a third under 36 years old saying they were “extremely unlikely” to vaccinate their children, while only a quarter of older mothers said so.
Simonson said it’s possible that younger mothers are on social media more and thus exposed to more misinformation.
Matthew Rhodes, an environmental microbiologist at the College of Charleston who has studied vaccine hesitancy, said the amount of inaccurate information about vaccines can be overwhelming.
“I think for a lot of people it probably comes from a good place of just wanting to protect your child in any way, and it’s hard to sift through all the information,” he said. “We have to — as doctors and researchers and scientists — figure out how to get our message out there in better, and more reaching, and more convincing manners.”
Rhodes said the dangers of the coronavirus far outweigh the risks of possible side effects from the vaccines, but the politicization of the pandemic has created a divide among Americans.
“We see vaccine hesitancy rising among Republicans more than it is among Democrats,” he said. “Something that shouldn’t be politicized is being politicized, and it’s overall increasing rates of hesitancy toward vaccination.”
The survey found that parents who are Republican, parents in households making less than $25,000 per year, and parents without a college degree have become more resistant to vaccinating their children since the February survey. Higher-income, college-educated, and Democratic parents, who were already less resistant, became even less so.
Local mothers said they plan to vaccinate their children, despite some misgivings about the newness of the vaccines.
“I probably wouldn’t be willing to go first, but once I see how everyone else is doing, they’ll definitely get vaccinated,” said Katie Murray, whose children are 7, 5, and 20 months old, and will not be eligible until the availability expands further.
Murray, 39, of Fitchburg, said her husband is fully vaccinated, and she will get her second shot this week.
“My daughter just got a vaccine today for polio, my 5-year-old, so it’s like, another vaccine,” she said.
Candice Harding, 37, said she will be vaccinating her 12-year-old son before he heads to North Carolina to visit relatives this summer.
“He doesn’t like shots, period, but he’s OK with getting it,” the Mattapan resident said. “We have a lot of high-risk family members that we are around every day.”
Harding said she has largely avoided online information and social media posts about the vaccines and instead relied on a trusted source.
“I just prefer to talk with his pediatrician and get information from them, versus just getting it from outside sources. . . . There definitely is a lot of information out there, and you don’t really know” what to trust, she said.
Dorchester resident Natasha Richards was vaccinated early because she works in health care, and her 15-year-old daughter will also be getting the shot — even if she goes “kicking and screaming,” Richards said with a laugh.
“We have plans for the summer,” Richards, 44, said. “If we want to get out there and slightly enjoy a little bit of our summer . . . you have to be vaccinated, because you can’t trust that everybody’s going to be doing the right thing. So you need to do the right thing for yourself.”
Richards said some of her relatives don’t plan to vaccinate their children, and while she doesn’t try to change their minds, she shares factual information about the vaccines with them.
“I feel like everyone has to make their choice based off of what they feel comfortable with, especially for their own children and themselves,” she said. “All I do is share information . . . because I feel like it’s better to have the knowledge than not.”
The survey found that parents of teenagers were less resistant to having their children vaccinated than parents of small children. Thirty percent of mothers and 12 percent of fathers were resistant to vaccinating their infants and preschoolers, compared with 25 percent and 9 percent among mothers and fathers of teenagers 13 to 17.
Epidemiologists say it’s crucial to expand vaccine coverage in the population. According to US Census Bureau data, the newly approved group may represent fewer than 20 million people.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported last week that it had also found substantial vaccine hesitancy specifically among parents of 12-to-15-year-olds in a poll conducted in the last two weeks in April.
The foundation said 23 percent of those parents said they would definitely not get their children vaccinated, 18 percent would only vaccinate if the school requires it, and 26 percent would wait to see how the vaccine is working. Only 30 percent said they would get their child vaccinated right away.
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents’ intentions for vaccinating their kids largely line up with their own intentions for getting the COVID-19 vaccine themselves,” the foundation said.
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.