Pandemic Chronicles: Convincing vaccine skeptics

Study finds More than a third of Nevadans reluctant to get shots

PHOTO/RENOWN HEALTH: A nurse prepares a shot at Renown's drive-up inoculation clinic Jan. 14.
NOTE: This story was updated with new information on Jan. 15.

In state-specific projections of the percentage of Americans who will accept the COVID-19 vaccine, Nevada is at or near the bottom of the lists.

In order to reach “herd immunity,” experts say between 70% and 85% of a population must have been exposed to the virus, either by being vaccinated or by having contracted it. If large numbers of people decline to be vaccinated, widespread immunity would be delayed and the pandemic prolonged.

In Nevada, two vaccines have been available since early December and tens of thousands of people already have been vaccinated. State and Washoe County officials soon will be rolling out education and public relations campaigns to convince residents that the vaccines are safe and emphasizing the need for people to get inoculated when they are offered the chance to do so.

35% of Nevadans reluctant to get shots

A study released Jan. 13 found about 35% of Nevadans are resistant to getting vaccinated, but their stated reasons indicate that it’s possible to persuade many of them change their minds, researchers said. The study included responses from more than 5,000 state residents and nearly 1,000 additional health care workers. In the public group, 35% of respondents said they were “not at all likely” or “not too likely” to get the vaccine. In the health care workers’ sample, 77% said they likely would get the vaccine.

Sixty-five percent of the public group respondents said they were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to get a vaccine when able to do so. Factors associated with decreased likelihood of getting inoculations include race and ethnicity, with Blacks and Hispanics being more hesitant than others to get the vaccine. Those who live in rural areas also are less likely to adopt the vaccine than those who live in urban areas.

Other findings in the study of the general population indicated that those with higher levels of education are more likely to get the vaccine than those with lower levels of education.

The study was done for the University of Nevada, Reno and Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. The surveys were conducted from Nov. 25 to Dec. 31 by Immunize Nevada, the state Department of Health and Human Services and the UNR School of Community Health Sciences.

The most important factors people cited regarding their decisions related to the vaccine include safety and efficacy of the shots, as well as concerns about possible side effects. Those worries, health officials said, may be overcome through education about the vaccines’ safety and its effectiveness against becoming infected with COVID-19.

Education is key

Statewide, Immunize Nevada, a non-profit organization that promotes vaccines, is handling COVID-19 vaccine communications. The group recently hired a public relations firm to handle an educational campaign and launched a website, NVCovidfighter.com, an online resource for information about the inoculations and preventing the virus’ spread in the community and workplaces.

VIDEO: NVCovidfighter.com

The Washoe County Health District, county officials and the governments of Reno and Sparks have teamed up to develop a campaign to educate residents about the vaccines and persuade people to get them. County officials said the first phase of the effort includes working with local media outlets to provide access to experts and get answer questions about the inoculations. The county also is using  social media to keep media outlets and community leaders informed of developments concerning the vaccine.

“We know that there is skepticism for the vaccines, but the early research we’ve seen is indicating the need to focus on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, and better understanding of the process of vaccines in general and how it applied to COVID-19,” said Scott Oxarart, spokesman for the health district.

Reaching the public

The second phase of the effort is aimed at the general public, he said.

“We’ll be working with leaders in the community to help educate and persuade people to receive the vaccine,” Oxarart said. “The game plan is to hire a consultant to work on community outreach of the vaccine, both in English and Spanish, and building relationships with those community leaders so they can help share our information and let people know when and how they can get the vaccine, especially those who don’t follow traditional news through print, radio and TV.”

He said the community campaign, which is still being developed, will be similar to the county’s “Mask On Move On” campaign, which encourages people to follow the statewide mask mandate and other precautions. That campaign includes online resources for individuals and businesses.

Nationally, 60% of Americans said they would “definitely or probably get a vaccine” in October, prior to the current vaccines being approved, according to the PEW Research Center. That result was up from the 51% who said they would accept a vaccine the month before. In October, about four-in-ten (39%) said they “definitely or probably would not” get a COVID-19 vaccine, though about half of those people said it was possible they would decide to get vaccinated once people started getting inoculated and the vaccines didn’t show negative effects.

Polls reveal skepticism

At the time, 21% of U.S. adults in the survey said they would reject vaccines and were “pretty certain” that more information would not change their minds. A Gallup poll in October also indicated that six-in-10 Americans said they will get the COVID-19 vaccine, with 40% reporting they would refuse to participate in inoculations.

VIDEO: NVCovidfighter.com

Overall, about 10% of the respondents in the Gallup poll cited politicization of the vaccine and a general distrust in vaccinations as reasons for not getting the preventative shots.

The new state survey indicates Nevadans overall are more reluctant to adopt the vaccine than their counterparts in many other states. A report by Quote Wizard, an online insurance industry site, released in December, put the Silver State at the bottom of the list of states for vaccine acceptance. That projection used previous age-appropriate vaccination rates for adults, public opinion surveys and states’ access to health care to predict how widely adopted a COVID-19 vaccine will be.

Mistrust of vaccines

Nevada’s childhood vaccination rates, meanwhile, have been steadily improving, but still are low in comparison to many other states. Immunization rates for children ages 35 months to 19 have increased from 54% in 2008 to 71% in 2019. The state’s rate declined beginning in March, however, as parents and caregivers in Nevada and across the nation postponed some children’s immunizations during the pandemic.

IMAGE/IMMUNIZE NEVADA: The non-profit group is working on a campaign to persuade people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mistrust of the current vaccines also may be based on their fast development, misinformation about the safety of previous vaccines, skepticism among minority communities whose trust has been violated in the past (as in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study), worries about side effects among people with pre-existing medical problems, and the influence of the anti-vaxxer movement, which last year gained strength on social media.

A report in “The Lancet,” a British medical journal, noted in October that: “Social media accounts held by so-called anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7 to 8 million people since 2019….The decision to continue hosting known misinformation content and actors left online anti-vaxxers ready to pounce on the opportunity presented by coronavirus.”

Anti-vaxxers a factor

Online platforms including Facebook and YouTube in December began deleting misinformation related to Covid-19 vaccines. Still, the anti-vaxx movement remains a threat that may undermine the roll out of the inoculations. In Nevada, that movement is small, but very vocal – and prone to harassment.

In December 2019, for example, Immunize Nevada cancelled two events that were planned to celebrate the importance of vaccinations and honor community leaders who have worked to improve the state’s vaccination rates. The cancellations came after people posted online negative reviews of the two restaurants scheduled to host the events.

In July 2019, a small group of protesters showed up at the annual Family Health Festival in Sun Valley, where health care including free vaccines was offered to residents, to encourage people to opt out of childhood immunizations. Nevada is among several states that allow medical or religious exemptions to the mandatory vaccines required in public schools.

Victory against polio

History provides some reassurance for the eventual wide adoption of the COVID-19 vaccines and reaching herd immunity.

In 1954, a Gallup poll asked adults whether they would get the newly-available polio vaccine. In that poll, 60% said yes and 31% said no. As more and more people were immunized, people dropped their objections to the vaccine and herd immunity was reached.

Polio, which disabled about 35,000 people in the U.S. annually in the 1940s, has been eliminated in this country. Since 1978, no case of polio has originated in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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