With a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer expected to receive FDA authorization in December and another vaccine from Moderna following close behind it, millions of people could start receiving vaccines in the coming weeks and months. But will they?
A fractured media environment and a small but vocal anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. create problems for public health officials who are trying to convince people to be vaccinated. According to a September report from the Pew Research Center, the country is evenly divided on whether to get a vaccine, with 51% saying they would definitely or probably get a vaccine and 49% saying they definitely or probably would not get it.
Those numbers are down from a 70%/30% split in May. In addition, 40% of healthcare workers said they were uncertain about whether they would get a vaccine.
Lyndon Haviland, a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy, recently wrote in The Hill that the hesitance is fueled by the long-standing anti-vaxx movement and President Trump’s politicization of the pandemic this year.
“The public health risks of children not receiving vaccines such as MMR are well documented. Yet, the anti-vax community has built momentum and gained strength during the pandemic,” Haviland wrote. “Public trust in government is falling, accelerated by a lack of COVID-19 leadership over the past six months. These political actions have created skepticism about the government’s ability to keep us safe and defeat the virus.”
However, not all of the resistance to the vaccine is political or rooted in the anti-vaxx movement. An Associated Press poll found that people were also concerned about the safety and potential side effects of a largely unknown vaccine.
“I am not an anti-vaxxer,” Melanie Dries, 56, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, told the AP. “To get a COVID-19 vaccine within a year or two … causes me to fear that it won’t be widely tested as to side effects.”
The key to building public trust in the vaccine is to emphasize safety over speed — acknowledging that Americans want their lives to go back to normal quickly, but they don’t want to compromise their safety to regain that sense of normalcy.
“A lot of the messaging around coronavirus vaccine development has been about trying to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible. While that is good, I think it does raise some concerns among people who are normally willing to take vaccines,” UCLA epidemiologist Timothy Brewer told the Washington Examiner. “The emphasis on getting the vaccine out quickly has led to concern about potentially cutting corners.”
Public health officials are aware of these concerns and working to shift messaging ahead of vaccine deployment at the end of this year and into 2021.
Dr. Francis Collins, who directs the National Institutes of Health, told the Associated Press that safety is the top priority. The NIH is creating a master plan for testing the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates in tens of thousands of people, to prove if they really work and also if they’re safe.
“I would not want people to think that we’re cutting corners because that would be a big mistake. I think this is an effort to try to achieve efficiencies, but not to sacrifice rigor,” Collins told the AP.
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