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Vaccine hesitancy is fueled by polarization and mistrust in science, experts say

EVANSTON, Ill. — Political polarization and a history of mistrusting scientific experiments lie behind the skepticism many Americans have toward vaccination, according to experts from Northwestern University.

Survey results released earlier this year by Professor James Druckman showed a possible connection between Americans’ trust in institutions and their acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine.

People who said they trusted President Trump had the lowest intention of seeking a vaccination, the survey showed. On the other side, those who expressed trust in Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said they would vaccinate.

The survey also showed that African Americans have a much lower trust in the vaccine than white Americans or Asian Americans.

“I would say that these racial disparities likely stem from a history of misconduct in scientific trials on minority populations,” said Druckman, the Payson S. Wild Professor of political science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and associate director of the University’s Institute for Policy Research. “It is particularly worrisome given the disproportionate impact of COVID on minority populations.”

Druckman is a member of the COVID States Project, a multi-university and multidisciplinary group of researchers who seek to identify links between social behaviors and virus transmissions, as well as the impact of messaging and regulation on individual and community outcomes during this crisis. The research is aimed at helping practitioners and governments to make informed decisions and allocate resources more effectively.

Professor Druckman is available for comment. He can be reached at druckman@northwestern.edu or 847-491-2646.

Kenzie Cameron is a research professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She focuses on health communication, racial and ethnic disparities and methods to increase individuals' use of preventive services such as adult vaccinations. She said we need to recognize the history of unethical experiments like Tuskegee, as we also acknowledge how institutional racism continues to fail Black Americans in the healthcare system.

Cameron said our vaccine communications need to be adaptive.

“One message is not going to be sufficient. If we do not do the work and ask people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age and other health conditions, then we may not fully learn what messages we need to get out there. We should expect that things will continue to change — and therefore, our messages will need to change as well,” Cameron said.

“If we see disparities in vaccination rates among racial and ethnic groups, we may see an even wider gap in rates of disease and death. In other words, we risk seeing an even greater disparity than we are seeing now.”

Cameron can be reached at k-cameron@northwestern.edu.

This political polarization is likely to hinder our ability to control the pandemic in general, even beyond vaccination.

Professor Erik Nisbet, who studies misinformation, agrees.

“My biggest worry is not limited supplies or distribution but rather the deep political, social, economic and racial divides besetting the United States — especially as polarization and false narratives about the 2020 election continue,” Nisbet said. 

How can policymakers combat vaccine hesitancy?

“Politicians and community leaders, both at the local and national levels, need to dampen divisive rhetoric and actively embrace vaccination programs,” Nisbet said.

“We must also be ready to quickly counter ‘micro’ misinformation targeting specific populations who may be especially vulnerable to falsehoods about the vaccine which could result in significant inequities in vaccination rates,” he added.

Nisbet is the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation-funded project “Quantifying the Downstream Effects of COVID-19 Online Health Information on Risk Perceptions, Decision Making, Policy Preferences, and Preventive Health Behaviors.” The project is a seven-month-long tracking study of Americans’ exposure to, and belief in, COVID-19 online misinformation and its impact on COVID-19 risk perceptions, policy attitudes and health behaviors — including COVID-19 vaccination.  

He is available to comment on the role played by community leaders. He can be reached at erik.nisbet@northwestern.edu.

We also need a public health education campaign.

“We need a national campaign with messages about the advantages of vaccination, the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, and which groups should seek to be vaccinated when,” said Hector Carrillo, professor of sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. “Furthermore, while the expertise of the 16-member task force appointed by President-elect Biden is impressive, it is essential the task force also include those whose primary training and expertise is in the behavioral or social sciences, or in public health education or communication.”

Carrillo’s research interests include sexualities, migration and transnationalism; race/ethnicity; and health promotion and HIV/AIDS. He can be reached at hector@northwestern.edu.