Read: Inside the mind of an anti-vaxxer
Similarly, despite concerns that people are inundated by misinformation about vaccines online, exposure to it seems quite rare; in a study, my co-authors and I estimate that only 19 percent of Americans encounter one or more vaccine-skeptical web pages each year. To date, no convincing evidence has demonstrated that online misinformation is increasing hesitancy, which long predates the internet.
These facts are encouraging, but successfully persuading eligible adults to get vaccinated will still be challenging, especially on a voluntary basis. Consider uptake of the flu vaccine, another voluntary vaccine that seeks to protect people from a virus that kills hundreds of thousands of people globally each year. During the 2019–20 flu season, for instance, only 48 percent of adults age 18 and older and 64 percent of kids were immunized, including just 70 percent of the seniors who were most at risk. The barriers to immunization are diverse and include misperceptions about the risks of the flu and the vaccine, as well as logistical and (perceived) financial obstacles.
COVID-19 is far deadlier than the flu, which may increase some people’s desire to get vaccinated, but the vaccines are new and thus present novel communication challenges.
It is useful in thinking about the path forward to distinguish between three groups of people. The first group comprises the adults with largely favorable attitudes toward vaccines who vaccinate their children and tend to get seasonal influenza shots. This group is ultimately very likely to take a COVID-19 vaccine once one becomes available; the primary challenge is helping them turn those intentions into action by reducing logistical barriers that could limit immunization, such as mobility restrictions, perceived cost, scheduling challenges, fears of going out, etc. These obstacles will be especially challenging for the initial COVID-19 vaccines because we must make sure that people get both doses that are recommended for protection.
The second group is the very small subset of Americans with strongly negative views toward vaccines. Realistically, people in this group will be extremely hard to persuade, but we should try to do so not just for the sake of their own health but to limit the potential risks they could pose to people in their communities and social networks.
The third and most important group, however, is made up of Americans with mixed to somewhat favorable attitudes toward vaccines. Though the childhood-immunization data suggest that parents in this group vaccinate their children at very high rates, they are less likely to get vaccines themselves as adults (for instance, by getting a flu shot every year). Persuading them to get a COVID-19 vaccine will be crucial—this group is both much larger as a proportion of the population than the anti-vaccine fringe and also more receptive to public-health guidance.