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Here’s why vaccine-hesitant Utahns say they’re avoiding the COVID-19 shot

Census surveys also reveal disparities based on education level and insurance status.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Colton Shakespear administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru event organized by the Utah County Health Department in Spanish Fork on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

Roughly half of all Utahns who are hesitating to get their COVID-19 vaccine are worried about side effects from the shot, according to new survey estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The concern ranks as the most commonplace reason for vaccine hesitancy in the Beehive State, but the survey suggests that wait-and-see attitudes and disbelief that the shot is necessary are also holding many people back.

The survey shows that the answers people give shift as their resistance hardens — and begin to center on distrust of the vaccine and of the officials promoting it as a lifesaving public health measure. The data comes from the bureau’s biweekly Household Pulse Survey and covers the first two weeks of September.

Carrie Butler, executive director of the Utah Public Health Association, says she’s encouraged that it seems more people are uncertain about the vaccine than are firmly entrenched in opposition to it.

“Some people are movable,” she said, adding that vaccine efforts aren’t advanced by “alienating people and calling them conspiracy theorists or telling them that they’re part of a far-right movement to destroy the country.”

“Those things are not helping them make better decisions. They’re just backing people into their corners,” she said. “And the more we can provide good information and help people feel heard and understood about why they’re not getting the vaccine and then addressing those concerns, I believe that we’ll start to see better outcomes.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

That can be difficult, she said, when the attention is on the most strident vaccine skeptics. Just last week, she noted, a crowd opposed to vaccine mandates packed a Utah legislative hearing and jeered at lawmakers who challenged their assertions.

But digging deeper shows that different motivations and demographic characteristics separate the “vaccine-hesitant” and “vaccine-resistant” populations, said Ashley Kirzinger, associate director of public opinion and survey research for the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The hesitant individuals are more likely to be racial and ethnic minorities and are predominantly concerned about side effects and the safety of the vaccine, she said. That group has been shrinking as people grow more comfortable with getting inoculated.

On the other hand, there’s been little movement within the vaccine-resistant population, which is disproportionately made up of white, evangelical Republicans, Kirzinger explained.

“Their views of the vaccine are not really about the concerns about the safety or the side effects,” she said. “Throughout the pandemic, they have been less worried about getting sick from the virus. They were more likely to say the pandemic has been exaggerated. … And in our data, we find that they think that the vaccine poses a greater risk to themselves than the virus itself.”

Butler said she hopes state leaders and public health can find strategies that move both of these categories toward vaccination and ways of encouraging other precautions while people are still undecided.

In the meantime, individuals who are still weighing immunization should be wearing masks when they’re in indoor public spaces, avoiding large crowds and washing their hands frequently, she said.

“If we can encourage people to do that while they’re waiting and seeing,” she said, “that should help us at least mitigate some of the risk that they’re incurring by not getting vaccinated.”

Lower-income Utahns face more barriers

The data also highlights the way social and economic inequities can play into vaccine hesitancy.

Compared to college graduates, people without a degree were more than twice as likely to say they wouldn’t or probably wouldn’t get the shot, according to the most recent national survey results. Respondents without insurance were also about twice as likely to say they were definitely or probably going to turn it down.

Stacy Stanford of the Utah Health Policy Project said that matches what her organization has seen on the ground and in state data on gaps between vaccination rates among Medicaid recipients and the rest of the population.

While 72.6% of all Utahns 12 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, only 46% of Medicaid recipients have, according to the Utah Department of Health.

In many cases, she said, these individuals aren’t entrenched in their views.

“Maybe they’ve seen some misinformation, they have questions, they don’t feel informed. All of these things that cause hesitancy,” she said. “And those are really compounded by access barriers.”

Park City and east Summit County, home to some of the state’s highest vaccination rates, are also where the biggest Medicaid disparities exist, according to a recent state report. There, people older than 12 who are on Medicaid are getting vaccinated at about half the rate of the community as a whole, according to the state’s data.

Stanford said there are a wide array of reasons for these discrepancies. Some people that her colleagues meet are skeptical the vaccines are free, or almost become suspicious when they hear there’s no charge, she said.

“The United States isn’t super used to free health care,” she said. “So it can be hard for people to understand that no, this is truly free. You already paid for it with your tax dollars.”

Many people are also worried they don’t qualify because they don’t have identification, she said. People who don’t have sick leave or reliable child care might worry about side effects from the vaccine, and individuals who have had negative encounters with health care might also be reluctant.

“You add misinformation to bad experiences, and then you add to that things like being a person of color already more likely to have those negative experiences … all of that stuff compounds and builds barriers to vaccine acceptance,” she said.

How are parents feeling about vaccination?

As childhood COVID-19 cases have climbed with the new school year, some parents are grateful for the chance to vaccinate their older kids and looking forward to when they’ll be able to inoculate those younger than 12 against the virus.

However, Kirzinger notes, unvaccinated parents are unlikely to seek inoculation for their children, and even some vaccinated ones might need time to get comfortable with it.

About 60% of parents who have gotten the vaccine say their 12- to 17-year-old children are vaccinated, while only 4% of unvaccinated parents do, according to surveys conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

As with adults, concern about side effects is the leading worry for Utah parents who are on the fence or opposed to giving their eligible children the shot, but it’s closely followed by lack of trust in government, according to the most recent Household Pulse Survey. Many others said their children aren’t high risk or that they don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccine enough.

Butler said she sympathizes with parents’ concerns about the shot but didn’t hesitate to take her own children to get the vaccine. And she hopes state officials and public health experts can equip other families with the information they need as they weigh these decisions.

“Because it’s one thing for me to go and get a vaccine in my arm, but it’s a whole other thing for me to entrust somebody to give a vaccine to a five-year-old,” she said. “I think that when we talk about vaccinating the younger crowd of kids, we really, really have to know what we’re talking about when it comes to risk assessment ... so that they [parents] can make an accurate decision for their families.”

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