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As Omicron spreads and cases soar, many unvaccinated people remain staunchly defiant

Protesters demonstrated against a vaccine mandate in Los Angeles on Nov. 16.MORGAN LIEBERMAN/NYT

CLEVELAND — In the year since the first shots of coronavirus vaccines began going into arms, opposition to vaccines has hardened from skepticism and wariness into something approaching an article of faith for the approximately 39 million American adults who have yet to get a single dose.

Now health experts say the roughly 15% of the adult population that remains stubbornly unvaccinated is at the greatest risk of severe illness and death from the omicron variant and could overwhelm hospitals that are already brimming with COVID patients.

Compounding the problem, the pace of first-time vaccinations appears to be plateauing this month even as omicron takes hold, and the numbers of children getting vaccinated and eligible adults getting booster shots are lower than some health experts hoped. Around 20% of children 5-11 years old have gotten a dose of vaccine. And only around 1 in 3 fully vaccinated Americans has gotten a booster.

So far, the threat of omicron is doing little to change people’s minds. Nearly 90% of unvaccinated adults said the variant would not spur them to get shots, according to a recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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And some of the unvaccinated said that omicron’s wily ability to infect vaccinated people only reaffirmed their decision to not get the shot.

Public health campaigns and employee vaccine mandates have made progress since the summer at reducing the ranks of unvaccinated fence-sitters, people without easy access to health care and those who were hesitant but persuadable.

The remaining ranks of unvaccinated Americans steadfastly opposed to getting a shot tend to be younger, whiter and more Republican than those who have received the vaccine or are still considering one, surveys have shown.

The number of adults vaccinated has steadily grown since six months ago, when roughly 170 million had received a first shot, compared with around 220 million Saturday, an increase driven in part by mandates.

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Low vaccination rates are still heavily concentrated in rural areas and the South, with Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama near the bottom. Those states have recorded around half of their population as fully vaccinated, well below the national rate of about 62%.

The United States continues to see a stark partisan divide in vaccination rates, with more than 91% of adult Democrats receiving at least one shot, compared with about 60% of adult Republicans.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.