In the first months of 2021, COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts have taken a rapid hold across the U.S. with Americans, on the whole, increasingly willing to get vaccinated.
Five different pollsters asked Americans how willing they are to get vaccinated in December, and again in March, while giving people some option to say they were undecided or in the middle. And the topline takeaway is that the share who’d gotten vaccinated or definitively intended to rose by an average of 23 percentage points.1
Meanwhile, the average share who expressed little intention of getting vaccinated dipped a relatively modest 5 points,2 while the undecided share fell an average of 18 points.3 If a politician or issue saw a similar rise over that period of time, it’d be reported — defensibly — as a shocking surge of support.
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The shift isn’t entirely unexpected, though. For most of last year, the question of getting vaccinated was wholly hypothetical, as vaccines were still under development and their eventual efficacy remained unknown. Many Americans also worried about a vaccine rushed out under political pressure. But in December, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, marking the start of the nation’s vaccination campaign. Now, over one-quarter of Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine and most know at least one person who’s been vaccinated, making the question of whether to get vaccinated increasingly tangible.
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It’s a mistake to think of the public as divided between a faction of enthusiastic vaccine advocates and a smaller bloc of equally adamant anti-vaccination crusaders. Polling last winter found many Americans who were undecided but potentially swayable, and in the months since, that group has increasingly made up their minds in favor of the vaccine, from an average of 40 percent to 58 percent, as the chart above shows. The share of vaccine refusers, meanwhile, has slightly decreased.
There’s a clear trend toward vaccine acceptance, although pollsters are finding somewhat less agreement on the absolute number of Americans who are likely to end up getting vaccinated — a question crucial for the prospect of reaching herd immunity.
One factor may be the slew of different frameworks pollsters have used to ask respondents to assess their behavior. This ranges from simple yes-or-no questions to questions that ask respondents to assess their likelihood of getting a shot or to consider the circumstances under which they might get vaccinated.
Whether pollsters give respondents an explicit option to say they’re uncertain also seemed to matter. Two polls that didn’t include any “maybe” or “not sure” options, Gallup and NPR/Marist, found initial vaccine acceptance higher than our average (in December, 65 percent and 61 percent, respectively, said they’d get the shot) and then relatively modest movement in the following months (74 percent and 70 percent, respectively, said this month that they’d gotten or intended to get the vaccine). Taken together, the results correctly suggested that a significant bloc of the public wasn’t yet fully sold on the vaccines in December — but that, if pushed to choose, those waverers were more likely to swing to a “yes” than a “no.”
Still, that group of vaccine-ambivalent people was hardly monolithic. Surveys last year found a number of groups that were less likely to say they wanted to get vaccinated. Two of the groups that received the most attention were Black Americans and Republicans. Their reasons for not wanting to get vaccinated, however, differed significantly. (So did the nature of their unwillingness, with the former more likely to express initial hesitation and the latter outright refusal.) Notably, the share of Black Americans who want to get vaccinated has steadily risen since last year while the share of Republicans who want to get vaccinated has moved significantly less. In Kaiser Family Foundation polling, for instance, the share of Black Americans who were vaccinated or said they’d get the shot as soon as possible rose 35 percentage points between December and March, while the change among Republicans was 18 points.
How COVID-19 vaccines work
Partisanship has proved one of the strongest predictors of Americans’ reactions throughout the pandemic, and vaccination is shaping up to be no different.
In a mid-March CBS/YouGov poll, one-third of Republicans gave a definitive “no” to the question of whether they’d get vaccinated — still a minority, but higher than the share of refusers among any other racial, generational or gender-based demographic group. That survey also asked people who said they will not or might not get the shot to select their reasons for turning it down . The most commonly chosen reason, across partisan lines, was a feeling that the shot was “still too untested” — 58 percent of those who weren’t sure they’d get the vaccine, including 61 percent of Republicans, chose that as a rationale. Other factors were more uniquely partisan: Thirty-five percent of the Republicans who were unsure whether they’d get vaccinated said that they were “just not concerned about coronavirus,” reflecting larger polarization on the seriousness of the pandemic.
The vaccine rollout is about to hit another inflection point this spring, though, as states begin extending eligibility to the general public, leaving the question of whether the share of Americans who want to get the shot will continue to rise as well.
By far the most common reason people have cited for why they might not get vaccinated, a late February AP-NORC survey found, was concerns about possible side effects, which a 57 percent majority named among their top reasons (people taking the survey were allowed to select multiple options). That was followed by 48 percent who said they were waiting to see if it was safe, 45 percent who said they didn’t trust COVID-19 vaccines, 30 percent who weren’t sure the vaccine would work, 28 percent who worried about an allergic reaction and 27 percent who said they believed other people needed the shot more.
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People aren’t always great at predicting what will or won’t cause them to change their minds. But a COVID-19 poll conducted by Langer Research Associates in March found the factors that best predicted whether people intended to get the vaccine included their trust in the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness; their concern about catching the virus; and their sense of social and moral norms (that is, believing that those around them want them to get vaccinated, and that being vaccinated is a community responsibility, respectively).
That suggests that many people who are still up in the air on whether to be vaccinated may still be reachable, but it’ll likely take further public health communications work. Even partisanship may not be an entirely immovable stumbling block — a CBS/YouGov polling experiment found some evidence that hearing about former President Donald Trump’s support for the vaccine could improve the willingness of at least some Republicans and Republican-leaning respondents who were hesitant, even if it did little to move those who said they are firmly against getting vaccinated. Changing the minds of those still flatly refusing the vaccine is likely a harder sell.
Sometimes, there’s not much basis to expect a dramatic change: certain traits, like partisanship, are known to stay relatively stable. But in situations where people are likely to encounter a lot of new information — whether it’s the rollout of a brand-new vaccine or the start of a primary election crammed with little-known candidates — it’s reasonable to expect opinions may evolve significantly.
It’s also hard for people to predict their own future hypothetical behavior — whether it’s how likely they are to get a vaccine that’s months away from appearing at their local drug store or an election that’s years away. And it’s equally difficult for them to predict what might potentially change their minds. When a lot of people are saying they’re still not totally sure, it’s good to take them at their word.