After months of logistical hurdles, the United States has successfully purchased enough Covid-19 vaccines for everyone to be fully inoculated. And with the current average number of shots given each day at approximately 2.75 million, a number projected to grow as suppliers ship more vaccine doses throughout the country, distribution does not present as much of a concern as originally anticipated.
The next challenge for reaching herd immunity in the United States has nothing to do with production or distribution. It’s vaccine hesitancy.
Vaccine hesitancy is anxiety related to obtaining vaccines. This concept is not exclusive to the coronavirus vaccine. The U.S. has faced vaccine hesitancy from individuals, also known as anti-vaxxers, with immunizations against other illnesses like measles, mumps, rubella, and the flu. And now that the CDC and the FDA have paused use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to rare, but aggressive, blood clots, the government must work double-time to ensure that the public continues to trust the science behind the vaccines. Some of this vaccine hesitancy is fueled by misleading alternative news, but for marginalized groups, some of it stems from distrust of the government and scientific communities.
In the early 19th century, eugenics as a form of valid medicinal practice was popular in the United States. Headed by Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, it was believed that eugenics, selective breeding to create a more “favorable” human race, was the key to ensuring that the United States was the best country in the world.
However, this practice led to the sterilization of any demographic that was deemed as having less favorable characteristics. While immigrants and individuals with mental and physical disabilities fell victim to these practices, Black women were sterilized at the highest rates. Although eugenics are now considered a false science, the impact of the practice reverberates in the minds of marginalized communities.
Another such example is the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. During the same period of United States history, the infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was taking place. In exchange for medical exams and meals, poor, Black sharecroppers in the South agreed to participate in a study regarding the effects of syphilis.
However, the African Americans diagnosed with syphilis were not made aware of their diagnosis. They were left untreated for their condition, even when penicillin was discovered as the cure. The study lasted 40 years, and most of the participants died due to lack of treatment.
Distrust of medicine from African Americans did not stop in the 20th century. Many doctors are racially biased, and nurses often have less sympathy for their Black patients, leading to increased rates of undertreated pain and a lower quality of care that results in higher mortality rates.
The reasons for vaccine hesitancy in rural America differ from those of Black Americans, but they present similar roadblocks nonetheless. One study showed that over 60% of individuals who live in rural communities believe that getting vaccinated is a matter of personal choice, as opposed to a matter of social responsibility, leading to less urgency to take the shot.
Additionally, nearly half of rural residents believe that the media has exaggerated the danger of the pandemic, and 39% do not fear getting sick themselves.
These barriers to universal trust in the vaccines will hinder the vaccination rate in the United States, with some scientists fearing that the coronavirus will continue to reside in small communities due to low vaccination rates. This may lead to the further development of variants which could impact already-vaccinated populations.
Currently, the Biden administration is rolling out a vaccine campaign to help address vaccine hesitancy. These ads, part of the “We Can Do This” campaign, are targeted at Black and Spanish-speaking communities.
However, these ads mostly focus on getting vaccinated as a means to return to normalcy via herd immunity, an argument that likely will not connect with rural citizens, considering their beliefs about the role of vaccines. Additionally, the intentional placement of people of color in these ads begs the question of whether the government believes that tokenism will win over the trust of people historically hurt by medicinal and government institutions.
The government should continue to use television ads for their vaccine campaign. However, they should target these ads to the family and friends of anti-vaxxers. The commercials should act as a reminder to reach out to vaccine skeptics and convince them to get a vaccine. Individuals are much more likely to trust their brother, coworker, or next-door neighbor instead of a scientist who they do not know. If the government targets this demographic to foster human connection, they will find greater success in reducing vaccine hesitancy.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.