By JOHN HOOD
RALEIGH — Despite the current spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths, there is good news on the not-so-distant horizon. Three effective vaccines are in the pipeline. Some North Carolinians — those battling coronavirus on the frontlines as well as those put at greatest risk by infection — will being vaccinated in the coming weeks.
When vaccines become more widely available, will you be among those who get the shots? A large share of the general public won’t say yes, at least not yet.
According to a late-November survey by the Pew Research Center, 29% of Americans said they would “definitely” get vaccinated if the vaccine were immediately available. Another 31% said they “probably” would. That’s a majority, yes. But with 39% saying they would definitely or probably reject it, there are grounds to wonder whether enough people will get vaccinated to establish the herd immunity required to get us past the pandemic stage.
These are countrywide findings, admittedly. But North Carolinians appear to be, if anything, even more skeptical than the average American. In an October study by Elon University’s survey team, only 37% of registered voters in our state said they would accept a COVID-19 vaccine, with 36% saying they wouldn’t accept it and the rest unsure.
I think it is possible these poll respondent aren’t being entirely honest — or, to put it another way, that they aren’t accurately predicting how they will feel when the opportunity for vaccination actually arrives.
Some Democratic-leaning North Carolinians who are suspicious of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed project to speed the approval and distribution of vaccines may be more willing to get their shots when a different president is in the White House. And some Republicans who tended to downplay their risk of contracting COVID-19 during election season may alter their perceptions of the risk for the same reason, because the political climate has changed.
Moreover, as December turns into January, and winter into spring, those worried that vaccine development was unsafely rushed during 2020 may get more comfortable with the final product. Millions will already vaccinated by then, likely with few or no side-effects. That will be reassuring.
Still, if we want some semblance of normalcy to return to our economy, our communities, our households, and our personal freedoms, we cannot afford merely to assume that vaccination rates will be high. To the extent some of our fellow citizens maintain a deep suspicion of medical providers and drug manufacturers, or continue to see the vaccination issue through partisan lenses, our leaders need a well-planned, sustained campaign to respond to their concerns.
That’s why three former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — have volunteered to get their shots in front of television cameras. That’s why Hollywood and Madison Avenue are getting involved. We need different messages for different audiences, addressing the different sources of public skepticism.
That skepticism isn’t limited to a single group. For example, the Pew survey revealed that 69% of Democratic-leaning voters said they would definitely or probably get vaccinated, vs. 50% of Republican-leaning voters. That’s a partisan gap, to be sure. But that still leaves lots of Democrats in the “no” camp.
Indeed, Pew also found that African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are far less likely to say they’ll get vaccinated (42%) than are whites (61%), Hispanics (63%), and Asians (83%).
Widespread vaccination will be necessary to put this public-health crisis behind us. It’s the main way we’ll save the businesses, jobs, and community institutions threatened by the virus itself and by the cumbersome regulations governments have enacted to combat it while vaccines were being developed.
Even so, I believe neither that we should use force to get everyone their shots nor that such a recourse will be necessary. While the vaccination rate must be high, it need not be 100%. Some individuals have real health conditions or adverse immune-system responses that merit special consideration.
But for most other objections, I think persuasion will be a proper and effective response. Let’s begin.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30p and Sundays at 12:30p on UNC-TV.