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Why A Big Bloc of Americans Is Wary Of The COVID-19 Vaccine — Even As Experts Hope To See Widespread Immunization

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

Most Americans say they will take one of the vaccines to immunize themselves from COVID-19 when they become available, according to a series of recent polls. (And that could be soon, since the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel this week recommended that the FDA authorize a vaccine created by Pfizer, likely clearing a path for formal approval and some Americans to be given it as early as next week.) But at least right now, there are several demographic groups that are disproportionately hesitant to be vaccinated, which might lead people in those groups to become ill from the virus at higher rates and prevent the U.S. overall from having the kind of widespread immunization from COVID-19 that medical experts and U.S. government officials would like to see.

How COVID-19 vaccines work

Overall, 60 percent of American adults said that they would “definitely” (29 percent) or “probably” (31 percent) take a vaccine “if it were available today,” according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted Nov. 18-29. Eighteen percent said that they would “definitely not” take the vaccine, and 21 percent said that they would “probably not.” Other polls have revealed similar findings (for the most part). A Morning Consult survey on behalf of National Geographic conducted Nov. 20-23 found 61 percent of Americans were either “likely” or “somewhat likely” to take a vaccine if it were approved by the FDA and made available to them. In that poll, 30 percent said they were unlikely to take the vaccine, including 19 percent who indicated they were “very unlikely.” And a Gallup poll conducted Nov. 16-29 showed roughly the same splits.1

[Related: How To Make Sure People Come Back For Their Second COVID-19 Vaccine Dose]

These surveys show some clear demographic divides around being vaccinated for COVID-19.2 Here are Pew’s results, for example:

Let’s look more closely at those differences (note that these groups are in alphabetical order):

Age. Willingness to take a vaccine generally increases with age, with people over age 65 in particular willing to take it, according to the surveys. The Morning Consult poll found 68 percent of those who are over age 65 said they would take the vaccine, compared to 54 percent ages 18-34.

It is not surprising that older people would be more eager to be vaccinated for COVID-19 compared to younger ones, since people over age 65 are dying at higher rates from the virus than younger people.

Education. Willingness to take a vaccine generally goes up with education levels too. In Gallup’s survey, 68 percent of people with a college degree said they would take a vaccine, compared to 61 percent without a degree. Pew found a larger gap between people with postgraduate degrees (75 percent would take a vaccine) compared to those with only a high school education (55 percent).

It could be that people with higher levels of education are more aware of the importance of taking vaccines to prevent the spread of diseases and/or are more confident the vaccine will both immunize them and not result in them getting sick. Alternatively, this education finding could just be a proxy for partisanship (more on that in a bit), since people with college degrees and postgraduate degrees tend to be more Democratic-leaning than those without degrees.

Gender. Men are notably more willing than women to say that they will take the vaccine, according to these surveys. For example, 67 percent of men but just 54 percent of women said they would take the vaccine, per Pew. There is not an obvious explanation for this finding, which showed up not only in all four of these polls but surveys done recently of people in Colorado, North Carolina and even Ireland. In fact, this finding contradicts the general trend in American health — women generally take more preventative measures than men. For example, women tend to be more likely than men to get flu vaccinations and men are more likely than women to go a year or more without seeing a doctor.

[Related: Why So Many Men Stuck With Trump In 2020]

One potential explanation: women are viewing not taking a vaccine as a pro-health measure, because they aren’t sure that the vaccines are safe. In the Elon University survey of North Carolina residents, women who said they would not take a COVID-19 vaccine suggested that the vaccine approval process had happened too quickly, leaving them worried that the vaccine process was politicized and that there might be side effects that are not being publicized or aren’t yet known.

“Women are already well-represented in the anti-vaccination movement and in wellness blogging communities that advocate for “natural” alternatives to vaccines,” said Kelly McGuire, a professor of gender at Ontario-based Trent University. She added, “There are also numerous studies indicating that women may be conditioned to be more risk-averse than men, which could be informing response to a vaccine that was developed much more quickly than most people anticipated.”

Partisanship. Democrats are more willing than Republicans to be vaccinated, per the surveys. For example, 75 percent of Democrats said they would take the vaccine in the Gallup poll, compared to 50 percent of Republicans.

This is not too surprising. There are not a lot of prominent politicians who are publicly skeptical of vaccines, but those ranks are dominated by conservatives. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, rank-and-file Republicans tended to be more wary of mandatory vaccinations for children for illnesses like the measles. And amid the COVID-19 outbreak specifically, those Republicans have expressed less concern about the spread of the virus compared to Democrats and are less likely to wear masks.

Race. Black people are notably less likely than other racial and ethnic groups to say they are going to take a COVID-19 vaccine, according to these surveys. For example, per the Pew survey, 83 percent of Asian Americans, 63 percent of Hispanics, 61 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans and just 42 percent of Black Americans indicated they would take a vaccine.

Black Americans are very Democratic leaning but also less likely than Asian or white Americans to have college degrees. So those two factors may not be good explanations for the wariness of Black Americans in particular about the vaccine. Instead, experts say there is long-standing mistreatment of Black Americans in U.S. health care research and lingering suspicion from that mistreatment about how the American health care system treats them. The most prominent example of this mistreatment is the Tuskegee study, in which a group of Black men, many of whom had syphilis, were denied treatment that would have lessened the effects of the disease because researchers at Tuskegee wanted to secretly study how the men dealt with the illness. The study ran from the 1930s to the 1970s before its details became public and it was shut down.

Overall, wariness about taking a COVID-19 vaccine is a major potential problem for the U.S. Some government officials are suggesting that the U.S. could eventually achieve “herd immunity” — a condition in which enough people have had the vaccine that the virus can’t spread rapidly through a geographic area. That would involve at least 60 percent of people (if not more) taking a vaccine. We should be hesitant about these notions of herd immunity, as it’s not clear if the vaccines prevent people from transmitting the virus, even if they are preventing people from getting a severe case of COVID-19. That said, there is general agreement that the higher the rate of COVID-19 vaccination, the better.

And the numbers of Americans willing to take a vaccine might go up. In the next few weeks and months, we are likely to see more and more people being vaccinated and not having major side effects.

Thousands of American health care workers and elderly people — and potentially millions of others — will likely receive a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of this month. Former Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama have all indicated that they will take a vaccine as soon as they are allowed to and would be willing to do so in public. It is hard to imagine in this scenario that the number of Americans who say they are willing to get a vaccine (and ultimately do) doesn’t go up, even among vaccine-wary demographic groups.

[Related: How To Trust That A COVID-19 Vaccine Is Safe]

Also, we are likely to see targeted efforts at specific demographic groups (like Black people) to encourage them to take a COVID-19 vaccine, which might also increase their enthusiasm about the idea.

Conversely, if say, thousands of people get really sick from the vaccine (this is not likely, I am raising a worst-case scenario) or people take the vaccine but still get really bad cases of COVID-19 say a month later (also unlikely) that might drive even more people to say that they are not willing to take it.

Bottom line — take these COVID-19 poll numbers seriously and literally, but not predictively. It is not great that 40 percent of Americans, including huge blocs of Black people, Republicans and women, seem wary of taking a vaccine right now. And it’s possible those numbers go up, but seems more likely that they go down as Americans watch news coverage describing how millions of people took a COVID-19 vaccine and not have any major health incidents as a result.

Other polling bites

  • About 82 percent of Americans agree with the Center for Diseases Control’s guidance that health care workers and residents of nursing homes should get COVID-19 vaccines before other Americans, according to a YouGov poll conducted Dec 2-3.
  • Just 29 percent of Americans think that prison inmates should be prioritized for getting COVID-19 vaccines, according to a YouGov poll conducted on Dec. 7, even as prisons are one of the places where virus outbreaks often occur. Another 45 percent of Americans oppose this idea, 26 percent said they didn’t know their view on the subject.
  • Black people are much more likely than other groups to say they “have a lot of common interests and concerns” with other Black people, according to a recent poll conducted by HuffPost and YouGov. In the survey, 52 percent of Black people indicated they have commonalities with other Black Americans, compared to 29 percent of Black people indicating that “race and ethnicity are not really that relevant,” and 19 percent saying they were not sure. Just 36 percent of Hispanics and 17 percent of white people indicated they have a lot of commonality with people who they share their race or ethnicity. This finding is consistent with other research that suggests Black Americans in particular view themselves as having “shared fate” with one another.
  • According to that same survey, Americans tend not to say they have a lot of common concerns with people who share their gender, income level, age, religion or live in the same area. But more than half of Democrats, Republicans, white people, Black people, men and women say they have a lot of commonality with people who are in the same political party that they are.
  • Age and race are big fault lines among Georgia voters in the two U.S. Senate races there. In his race against Democrat Jon Ossoff, incumbent GOP Sen. David Perdue leads 71-26 percent among Georgia’s white voters, according to a Data for Progress poll released this week. Among Georgia Black voters, Ossoff is ahead 89-9. Among voters over 45, Perdue leads 56-41. Among voters under 45, Ossoff leads 57-40.
  • In the other Senate race in Georgia, incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler leads her Democratic opponent Raphael Warnock 67-30 percent among white voters and 54-44 among those over 45. Warnock is ahead 89-7 among Black voters and 58-36 among those under 45. Overall, the DFP survey showed both races effectively tied (Warnock ahead 50-47 over Loeffler, Perdue ahead 50-48 over Ossoff.) FiveThirtyEight is doing a regularly updated polling average of polls in Georgia, which you can see here.
  • Sixty-six percent of Americans, including 51 percent of Republicans, said they supported a recent U.S. House vote to decriminalize marijuana, compared to just 25 who opposed it, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Dec 4-6.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 43.3 percent of Americans approve of the job President Trump is doing, while 52.5 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -9.2 points). At this time last week, 43.6 percent approved and 52.8 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -9.2 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 44.8 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.0 percent, for a net approval rating of -7.3 points.

COVID vaccine delivery day


  1. The one exception so far in terms of the overall numbers is a Survey Center on American Life poll conducted Nov. 13-21 and released this week, which didn’t have the same 60 percent yes/40 percent no split as the other three surveys. It found that just 51 percent of Americans said they would take a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 47 percent who said they would not.

  2. It’s worth noting that these polls are of adults and don’t include people under 18. The vaccines likely to be released in the next few weeks are only for adults, but eventually there will probably be vaccines for children and officials will encourage kids to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.