Opinion | There’s a difference between vaccine hesitant and anti-vaxx

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, 55.3% of Americans are fully vaccinated as of Sept. 26. Here in Pennsylvania, about 61% of people aged 18-64 and 92% aged 65 and higher have taken this vital step to protect themselves against COVID-19. 

Ashley Drews, medical director of infection prevention and control at Houston Methodist Hospital, notes that we’ll need a lot more shots in arms in order to put this pandemic behind us. 

“It’s still unclear exactly how many people will need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19,” Dr. Drews said. “But experts estimate that it will take at least 70% of the population — with some estimates ranging as high as 90%.”

After a year and a half of this pandemic — which has claimed the lives of 1 in 500 Americans — it’s shocking to see that nearly 45% of our population has yet to get vaccinated. For many vaccinated individuals, such as 65-year-old Carol Meyer of Ulster County, New York, patience is running thin. She suggested targeting the unvaccinated where it hurts — their wallets — and withholding stimulus and tax credits. 

“I feel we have a social contract in this country with our neighbors, and people who can get vaccinated and choose not to get vaccinated are breaking it,” she told the New York Times. 

Many states even implemented vaccine incentives to encourage their residents to get the jab, ranging from a joy ride on the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, to a “shot for shot” free alcoholic beverage in Louisiana, to entry in a state-wide lottery raffle in most states. It seems like nothing — not adrenaline rushes in race cars or free shots — can change the minds of those staunchly opposed to vaccination. 

It’s easy to respond in anger — God knows I have — but shifting our response and perception of the unvaccinated is the only way to combat rampant misinformation, widespread distrust and American resistance tradition. 

As I see it, there are two groups composing the population of unvaccinated Americans. Of course, there are the anti-vaxxers, who show up to school board meetings to protest mask mandates and try to convince their neighbors that vaccines make you magnetic. It’s this group for whom I’ve lost all respect or empathy. Charles M. Blow, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, describes this group perfectly. 

“We have a situation in America where people are dying and will continue to die of ignorance and stubbornness. They are determined to prove that they are right even if it puts them on the wrong side of a eulogy,” he wrote. “This is like watching millions of people playing in traffic.” 

Playing in the street alongside this group, though, is another. This other group is comprised of those who’ve been scorned by the American healthcare system before. Maybe they’ve fallen victim to the stream of misinformation running rampant on social media and news outlets. Maybe they’re uncertain of the way their individual immune system will respond to the vaccine because of unrelated health concerns. Whatever the matter, this group is not far gone. Our current tactics — the blaming, financial punishment and ridiculous incentives — are not the solution. Rather, vaccine hesitancy can be curbed with information access and empathy. 

Right here in Allegheny County, 64.5% of residents have received at least one dose. But according to a U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, 13.23% of respondents fall into the vaccine “hesitant or unsure” category and 9.34% were “hesitant.” That means in our backyard, there are thousands of people afraid to — not adamantly against — receive the vaccine. 

Taking targeted steps to instill vaccine confidence is the best course of action to increase vaccination rates among this population. 

First, prioritize combating misinformation. The Center for Countering Digital Hate identified that just 12 people are responsible for 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media in a May study. This “Disinformation Dozen,” as the Center coined them, are some of the primary sources of vaccine hesitancy in the United States. However, they stick to similar tactics — making them easily identifiable. 

Shannon Bond, technology correspondent for NPR, broke down how to identify some of their most “tried and true” techniques, ranging from distorting studies to falsely linking deaths to vaccine complications. Knowing who and what to avoid — and thus what information is automatically unreliable when communicating with vaccine hesitant people — is a key first step in encouraging vaccination. 

Next, shift the narrative from “compliance” to “progress.” Jane Mansbridge, a political scientist at Harvard University, wrote in 2011 about “the importance of getting things done.” She identified a long history of American resistance tradition — that is, the innate tendency of Americans and American institutions to distrust those in power and be skeptical of attempts to progress. It’s the reason checks and balances are embedded into our governmental structure and quick re-election cycles allow us to promptly and frequently hold our leaders accountable. But it also means that the American tradition of distrust has trickled down to every element of our culture — no longer just pertaining to avoiding tyranny but preventing medical and social progress for the sake of preservation. 

This means that, whether explicitly stated or not, the prospect of a government mandating or strongly encouraging a specific medical decision among its citizens is daunting. It’s the exact kind of situation we have been conditioned to stray from. But we also know that unless herd immunity is reached, variant after variant will continue to plague our world. Resisting the urge to resist is an essential step in getting vaccinated. 

Lastly, empathize with the unvaccinated. This one is the hardest for me. I can clearly see the link between a refusal to get vaccinated and a detriment to my safety and comfort. I want to — and arguably, should — blame the need for costly testing on the 6% of students, 9% of faculty and 11% of staff who are unvaccinated. Yet again, blame is not the solution. Directly reaching out to family, peers and neighbors who are hesitant is the best way to curb misinformation and instill trust in the vaccine. 

Approaching conversations with vaccine hesitant members of the community from a place of confidence in science and compassion for fear is key to changing minds. Changed minds are the only way to change the course of this pandemic. 

Julia writes mostly about socio-political issues. Write to Julia at [email protected]