The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in America under the Joe Biden administration has been a historic success. As of this week, more than 200 million shots have been administered — doubling the president’s original 100 day goal. Among vulnerable seniors, 81 percent have gotten at least one shot, as have more than 40 percent of working adults. And this week, the last eligibility constraints were lifted: Americans over 16 years old are now eligible to receive a vaccine.
This is unalloyed good news. But the wide availability of vaccines is pushing America toward an odd tipping point. The frenzied scramble to get a shot will soon end, as vaccine supply outstrips eager demand. New research from the Kaiser Family Foundation projects that there are only about 30 or 40 million more Americans left to vaccinate before America hits what KFF calls the “enthusiasm limit,” after which the remaining population is either hesitant to getting a Covid vaccine, or actively opposed. At current vaccination rates, KFF warns, the transition is nearly here: “across the U.S. as a whole we will likely reach a tipping point on vaccine enthusiasm in the next 2 to 4 weeks.”
This tipping point presents a major public health challenge. Until now there’s been no coaxing required to get Americans into a clinic, pharmacy or mass vaccination site. Now federal, state, and local governments, along with employers and church and community leaders will confront the challenge of convincing fence sitters to roll up their sleeves for a shot. The greater challenge according to KFF: “the one-fifth of adults who have consistently said they would not get vaccinated or would do so only if required.”
There are troubling pockets of vaccine resistance emerging in unexpected quarters. The Pentagon recently revealed, for example, that nearly 40 percent of Marines have refused to get a Covid vaccine. While vaccines are generally mandatory in the services, the Covid vaccines have only “emergency use authorization” from the FDA and can’t be required for troops without an order from the president.
Today, new polling data from a survey of more that 5,000 Americans across all 50 states offers a remarkable picture of the populations that are either ill-at-ease or actively opposed to Covid vaccination. First the good news: The poll, conducted for the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core, finds that 58 percent of Americans are either already vaccinated or committed to getting their shots. Another 19 percent are in the “wait-and-see” camp wishing to see “how the COVID-19 vaccines are working for others” before getting their own.
But that leaves nearly a quarter of Americans who are vaccine resistant, saying they will only get a shot if they are mandated to do so (9 percent), or who will outright refuse a vaccine (14 percent).
The vaccine refusal population is mixed.
Unsurprisingly, vaccine refusal has extraordinarily high overlap with belief in the discredited QAnon conspiracy theory, which still has a grip on about 13 percent of the country. The poll found that 38 percent of refusers are “generally agreeable to QAnon theories” — including that the U.S. is controlled by a cabal of “Satan worshiping pedophiles who run a global sex-trafficking operation.” For more on the intersection between QAnon and the antivax movement, read Rolling Stone‘s deep-dive investigation: How the Anti-Vaxxers Got Red-Pilled.
Politically, Republicans lead the refuser pack: 23 percent say they won’t get vaccinated, compared to 13 percent of independents and 6 percent of Democrats. Among Republicans the highest resistance comes from watchers of far-right television like NewsMax and One America News Network (31 percent) or those who don’t get their news from TV at all (36 percent). FoxNews watchers are, counter-intuitively, a bit less resistant than average: 16 percent.
In an American health system riven by racism — black mothers die of childbirth complications at nearly three times the rate of their white counterparts — it’s no shock that people of color also comprise a significant percentage of vaccine refusers. The poll found that nearly one-in-five of both multiracial and Black Americans say they won’t get vaccinated, in contrast to 15 percent of whites and 11 percent of respondents classified as Hispanic. It’s interesting to note, however, that these differences largely disappear among college-educated Americans, dropping to less than 10 percent regardless of race, according to the poll.
Among religious groups, white evangelicals are significantly more likely to be vaccine refusers, with 26 percent declaring they won’t get a shot. Precisely this same percentage of white evangelicals also agree with the statement: “God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19.” (Only religious Hispanics, both Catholics and Protestants, polled higher on this question, at 35 percent.)
The poll was conducted, in part, to identify religious messaging that could help boost vaccination rates. Here the survey offers a mixed bag. The Golden Rule is a tenet of almost all religions in America. And when asked whether “getting vaccinated is a way to live out the religious principle of loving their neighbors,” 69 percent of Jews and 66 percent of Muslims said yes. However, only 46 percent of white evangelicals agreed.
As the pollsters analyzed the data, they found “there are particular benefits to Black religious leaders and communities offering messages of vaccine adoption, with vaccine acceptance increasing among Black Protestants who attend services, versus those who do not.” They warned, however that church attendance among white evangelicals was correlated with greater vaccine resistance, “which could suggest that a lack of accurate public health information during religious services is influencing hesitancy.”
Does the widespread vaccine hesitancy and refusal identified in the poll pose an ongoing public health threat? We don’t yet have a satisfactory answer that question, or whether a “return to normal” can accommodate folks who don’t want a jab.
Vaccination primarily protects the individual getting their shots. But the public health goal is to achieve “herd immunity” where enough Americans have antibodies (either from vaccines or past covid infections) that the Covid-19 virus and its variants can’t find enough new vulnerable hosts to set off a chain reaction, and local flareups of the virus fizzle out, instead of spreading exponentially.
“We anticipate — and again, it’s purely a speculation — that the herd immunity level will be about 70 to 85 percent,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a White House briefing last month, suggesting: “We would hopefully get to that point somewhere by the end of the summer and the early fall.”
Fauci warned that “if a significant number of people do not get vaccinated, then that would delay where we would get to that endpoint.” But he was also optimistic that the return to a more open economy and social interactions doesn’t have to wait that long. “You don’t have to wait until you get full herd immunity to get a really profound effect on what you could do.”
The news from Israel, which has one of the world’s most successful vaccine rollouts, is encouraging. That country’s ratio of covid-cases-per-million has been similar to that of the United States, and it has vaccinated roughly 60 percent of its adults. (Israel has failed to extend this successful vaccination regime to the occupied territories, although it has reportedly vaccinated 130,000 Palestinians who work in Israel.) The country has recently been able to open up bars, restaurants, and malls while returning classrooms to full attendance, without sparking a worrying new wave of infections, according to a dispatch this week from the Washington Post.
Such numbers offer optimism that America can focus on vaccinating those tens of millions who still want the vaccine, and, with some education and cajoling, coax a significant percentage of fence-sitters to get the vaccine. This could leave the most stubborn refusers to fend for themselves — without condemning the country as a whole to a permanent life of limits and lockdowns.