Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy a speed bump in US roll-out

Polls show that about a third of Americans are sceptical about vaccines or do not want to get them.
Polls show that about a third of Americans are sceptical about vaccines or do not want to get them.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Mrs Bonnie Droter was hesitant about getting the coronavirus vaccine even before she found out she was pregnant, concerned that getting vaccinated might somehow affect her chances of conceiving later.

"I thought, if everyone's getting it, maybe I'll get it. I was not a firm yes, closer to no. But maybe eventually my answer would have become a yes," Mrs Droter, a 40-year-old government employee, told The Straits Times.

Then came the positive pregnancy test, a cause for celebration for her and her husband, Daniel, who are expecting their first child in October.

"Now that we're pregnant, I'm even more hesitant," said Mrs Droter.

"I don't know what would happen (if I got the vaccine). But then again, I don't know what would happen if I caught Covid. How are the kids that are born of pregnant people that either get sick from the coronavirus or have the vaccine? What are the implications of that? I just don't know."

Polls show that about a third of Americans are sceptical about vaccines or do not want to get them, highlighting the challenges of getting 70 to 85 per cent of America's population vaccinated.

Experts like Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cite that figure as the threshold needed to stamp out the spread of Covid-19.

The upshot is that after the initial crush of demand for vaccines exceeding limited supply, there will eventually be more vaccines available in America than people who want to take them.

This will happen in the next month or two, based on President Joe Biden's promise last week that by May, there will be enough vaccines for every adult in America who wants them.

Mr Biden said on March 2: "The time is coming, maybe 60 to 90 days, when the supply is adequate but not enough people can access the shots or don't want them.

He added: "To address that challenge, we're going to launch a massive campaign to educate people about vaccines: that they are safe and effective, and where to go to get those shots in the first place."

The White House said on Friday (March 5) that to date, 55 per cent of people aged 65 or older have received at least one vaccine dose.

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), which conducts regular surveys that track Americans' attitudes on Covid-19 vaccinations, found that people are increasingly more willing to get the vaccine.

In February, 55 per cent said they had already been vaccinated or would do so as soon as possible, up from 34 per cent in December.

Still, 22 per cent said they would wait and see before getting vaccinated, 15 per cent said they would definitely not get the vaccine, and 7 per cent said they would get one only if required.

Some holdouts are diehard anti-vaxxers, outright refusing to vaccinate themselves or their children, while others could be persuaded but are worried, including expectant mothers like Mrs Droter.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidance says that there is limited data about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines for pregnant people, but they may choose to be vaccinated and can discuss the question with their doctors before deciding.

Pregnant women and children were not included in the original clinical trials for the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines now available in the United States.

But Dr Fauci said on Feb 11 that about 20,000 pregnant women had been vaccinated "with no red flags" so far, and that the CDC and Food and Drug Administration were monitoring this.

The Biden administration has acknowledged the need to reach out to communities with high levels of vaccine scepticism, particularly African Americans, whose mistrust partially stems from their past mistreatment by the medical community and racial disparities in the healthcare system today.

The KFF vaccine attitudes poll found that 41 per cent of black adults had or wanted the vaccine as soon as possible, compared with the 61 per cent of white adults and 52 per cent of Hispanic adults who said the same.

Addressing the issue, Mr Biden said on Feb 26: "We all know there's a history in this country of subjugating certain communities to terrible medical and scientific abuse. But if there's one message that needs to cut through all of this: The vaccines are safe. I promise you.

"Listen to Dr Fauci. Listen to the scientists who developed them through extensive and rigorous review. I did," added Mr Biden, who publicly received his vaccine doses in December and January.

Another key to convincing people may be exposure of sorts to the vaccine.

The KFF poll found that respondents were more likely to want to get the vaccine when they had a close relationship with someone who had been vaccinated.

Mrs Droter, whose husband - an emergency personnel - was vaccinated earlier this year, said his vaccination made her a little more comfortable with the idea.

But she said she would still worry for herself even if more scientific studies come out this year concluding it is perfectly safe for pregnant women to be vaccinated.

"I probably would still want to wait and see," she said. "If I wasn't the one that was pregnant with the kid, I would be like, look at all this information, it seems to be fine. But this is my first kid."