I think over time, more [younger adults] will get the COVID-19 vaccine, but messaging needs to remind them of the need to protect older relatives. —Dorit Reiss, LLB, PhD
Explore This IssueFebruary 2021
Younger adults are less welcoming of vaccines because they feel less vulnerable than others, said Dorit Reiss, LLB, PhD, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who has studied the law and vaccinations. “They think the risk for them is lower, and we’re also told that we are at a lower priority than older people,” she said. “I think over time, more will get the COVID-19 vaccine, but messaging needs to remind them of the need to protect older relatives.”
Politics. Attitudes toward the vaccine also differ starkly by political party, with 69% of those with the Democratic party or who lean Democratic saying they would definitely or probably get the vaccine, compared to 50% of those who are Republican or who lean Republican.
Dr. Reiss said the Democratic-Republican difference is a product of the nature of politics in the U.S., but she believes it can be improved. “I think the vaccine issue is suffering from the unfortunate politicization of our public health response,” she said. “It’s important for leaders on both sides of the political spectrum to give a personal example by getting vaccinated in public and calling for vaccinating.”
Anti-vaccination groups. Other groups that have been found to be hesitant about vaccinations as well. Although those in higher income levels say they’re more likely to get COVID vaccines, very affluent segments of the population, including enclaves in California, helped give rise to the anti-vaccine movement.
The highly affluent, Dr. Reiss said, “have more time to put into that. If you’re working three jobs just to make ends meet and need to run from place to place to take care of everything, you don’t have time to read conspiracy theories on the internet,” she said. “Privilege allows you to worry about things you normally wouldn’t have given a second thought to.”
Those who hold extreme political views, whether on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, are also more likely to be anti-vaccination, Dr. Reiss said, thanks to a tendency toward a kind of chain reaction when it comes to conspiracy theories among these groups.
“People who believe one conspiracy theory can then believe in another, so people at the extremes of the political spectrum can be brought into a different conspiracy theory,” she said. “For example, someone may be brought in with ‘9/11 was an inside job’ and the anti-vaccine stuff will come within the groups later.”
Race. According to the Pew Research poll, only 42% of Black respondents said they would definitely or probably get a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 83% of Asian respondents, 63% of Hispanics, and 61% of whites.
Dr. Reiss said that the Black community is not anti-vaccine in the way we often think of the anti-vaccine movement. “They’re mistrustful of medicine and they have reason to be,” she said. This goes beyond the well-known Tuskegee Syphilis Study in which African American participants thought they were receiving treatment for syphilis but were actually in a study observing the natural history of their disease. The book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington, for instance, describes poor Black women unwittingly being enrolled in research experiments and boys, many of whom were Black, being given the now-banned diet drug fenfluramine for an experiment on the relation between criminal behavior and chemical levels in the brain.
“They have a history of being mistreated by the medical establishment, to be very blunt,” Dr. Reiss said. “And we have a history of discriminatory practices—basically, this is an earned mistrust.”