Last summer, when the US was facing the worst outbreak of measles since 1992, Gallup released a poll on vaccines with the provocative headline, “Is There an Outbreak of Doubt About Vaccines in the US?” In the Gallup/Wellcome Global Monitor survey, 72 percent of Americans aware of vaccines said they were safe, and 11 percent disagreed. Seventeen percent neither agreed nor disagreed. In the survey, a higher percentage, 84 percent, agreed vaccines were effective than said they were safe.
Some of the same questions are being raised about a COVID–19 vaccine today. In the US, new polls show that majorities or strong pluralities would get a vaccine. In a mid-August CNN/SSRS poll, 56 percent of adults, down from 66 percent in May, said they would get a vaccine if it were “widely available at low cost,” while 40 percent in the new poll said they would not. In an early August Fox News poll, 55 percent of registered voters, down from 60 percent in May, said they plan to get a shot when the vaccine becomes available (26 percent did not plan to get the vaccine). In another early August NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 60 percent said they would choose to get a vaccine; 35 percent would not. In three Gallup polls from late July and early August, between 62 and 66 percent of Americans said they would get an “FDA–approved, no cost vaccine for COVID–19,” while 34 to 38 percent would not.
How questions are worded is always important, and in our review of new polls, we found that when people are presented with a “not sure” response in addition to “yes” or “no” responses, about one in three say they are not sure. In five recent weekly Economist/YouGov online polls using this framework, around 30 percent consistently said they were not sure about getting the vaccine. In each poll, strong pluralities said they would get one.
There are some consistent demographic differences in terms of
willingness to get a vaccine. People with higher levels of formal education are
more likely than people with less education to say they would. In the polls we
reviewed, the youngest and oldest age groups were more willing than middle-aged
groups to get one. Whites expressed more willingness than blacks and Hispanics,
which may seem surprising given how hard blacks and Hispanics have been hit by
coronavirus. There have long been racial gaps in vaccine acceptance, and a vast
literature focuses on the many and varied explanations of resistance in the
African American community. Women are traditionally more risk averse than men,
and most recent polls show that they are less likely than men to say they would
get a vaccine. However, in the CNN and Gallup questions that specified a
low-cost or free vaccine, women and men were equally open to getting one.
All of the recent polls show large partisan gaps. In the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 71 percent of Democrats said they would get a coronavirus vaccine, compared to 48 percent of Republicans. The responses for Fox News were 66 and 34 percent, respectively, and for Gallup, they were 81 and 47 percent. In our polarized political climate, we see a partisan gulf on many questions about coronavirus and other issues. We don’t know if these responses are genuine or if they reflect the political posturing so common today.
Another possible indication of public hesitation comes from questions asking how soon people would get a new vaccine. In a July–August Morning Consult/Politico survey of registered voters, a quarter said they would be among the first to get the vaccine when it becomes available, while 31 percent said they would wait at least a few weeks, and 12 percent said they would be among the last. When framed this way, 17 percent said they would not get vaccinated, and 10 percent said they didn’t know what they would do. In a late July Axios/Ipsos poll, people were asked how big a risk taking the “first generation COVID–19 vaccine as soon as it becomes available” would be to their health and well-being. Twenty-six percent said it posed a large risk, 35 percent a moderate one, 29 percent a small risk, and only 9 percent said there was no risk.