How Do We Overcome Vaccination Hesitancy?

Today, I got my second COVID-19 booster. On December 15, 2020, I was one of the first healthcare workers in the United States to get the newly approved Pfizer vaccine. In the nearly 16 months since then, I’ve had a total of 4 COVID vaccinations, 2 shingles vaccinations, and an influenza vaccination. I’m alive, I’m healthy, and I want to stay that way.

But in my home of Franklin County, Ohio, only 74% of adults are fully vaccinated with the initial doses of COVID vaccines and only 41% of adults are both fully vaccinated and received a booster. Franklin County’s vaccination numbers are only slightly worse than the United States as a whole. We are now approaching 1 million American deaths from COVID-19. More than a third of those have occurred since vaccines were available to all adults making most of these deaths preventable. So, why aren’t Americans getting vaccinated?

Vaccine hesitancy is the intersection of ignorance, cowardice, obstinance, and selfishness. Most people who unvaccinated fall into one or more of these categories. Improving vaccination rates requires different tactics for each of these groups of people.

The four causes of vaccine hesitancy

Ignorance. Ignorance about disease and about vaccines is hard to break. Nevertheless, it is probably the easiest of the four barriers to vaccination to overcome. The ally of ignorance is misinformation. A famous adage (incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain) states: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth is putting on its shoes“. I the era of the internet, cable news, and social media, a better adage is: “A lie can travel around the world ten times before truth gets out of bed in the morning“. A subset of the ignorant is the skeptics who can be educated but will only accept education from members of their own kind. An OSU Buckeye fan will won’t be convinced by a Michigan Wolverine fan but might be convinced by a fellow Buckeye. Science is hard to understand and misinformation is a lot easier to understand. Education about vaccines needs to start in middle school science classes, continue in high school health classes, and continue further in physician offices.

Cowardice. Fear is amplified by ignorance. Like ignorance, misinformation is the ally of fear. Some people fear the metal needle, others fear the stuff that is in the syringe, and others just fear science in general. The great facilitator of fear is gossip. When one person tells another that he got a COVID vaccination and his arm was sore for a day, that story gets told to another person who tells another person, and on and on. By the time the tenth person tells the story, the report is that the vaccination caused the guy so much pain that he passed out, had a heart attack, and became impotent. Although education can help overcome cowardice, reassurance is more powerful, particularly when it comes from people you trust like pastors, sports figures, and movie stars. Once again, tribalism plays a role in reassurance. A Republican who won’t accept any reassurance from a Democrat might listen to a fellow Republican.

Obstinance. Some people are impossibly stubborn and no amount of education or reassurance will change their mind. Obstinance is the realm of the hard-core anti-vaxxers. At one extreme are those people who crave the attention they get by being anti-vaxxers or make money by being anti-vaxxers. This kind of secondary gain is nothing new and was the main motivation of snake oil salesmen, purveyors of patent medicines, and ponzi schemers. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Dr. Sheri Tenpenny are examples of people who make a living by being anti-vaxxers. At the other extreme are those people who just can’t admit that they are wrong about anything and will dig their heels in deeper to try to convince themselves that they were right all along. Some obstinate people look for reasons to justify their decisions. For centuries, obstinate people have used their personal interpretation of 2,000 year old passages from the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran to justify a whole variety of hatreds, unhealthy behaviors, social deviance, and crimes. During the COVID pandemic, obstinate people used similar interpretations to claim religious exemptions from vaccination. Obstinance is hard to overcome and sometimes the only tactic that works is public shame.

Selfishness. People who do not get vaccinated because of selfishness often know that vaccines work. They just figure that if everyone else gets vaccinated then the disease will go away and they won’t need a vaccine. The best friend of selfishness is cowardice and the two often go hand-in-hand. Overcoming selfishness often requires a combination of reassurance and shame. However, unlike obstinance, selfishness can sometimes be overcome by private shame rather than public shame.

How do we fix it?

As healthcare workers, our main tools are education and reassurance. As such, we can have the biggest impact on those who are hesitant to get vaccinated because of ignorance and cowardice. It is tempting to use shame but shame is no more useful in changing ignorance than education is in changing obstinance. The trick is to know one’s audience – we should focus on people who are hesitant to get vaccinated because of ignorance or fear. Wasting time and emotional energy on those whose vaccine hesitancy is motivated by obstinance or selfishness is unproductive, frustrating, and exhausting.

COVID-19 is not the first deadly pandemic that the human race has faced and it certainly will not be the last. But we can learn from our public health failures in vaccination and use that knowledge to lay the foundation for more effective public health measures when the next pandemic comes around. The adults when the next pandemic occurs are the children of today. Our focus needs to be on education and reassurance of our children so that ignorance, cowardice, obstinance, and selfishness does not kill them when they are adults.

This pandemic appears to be waning and there are signs that life may be getting back towards normal. For all of the unvaccinated people who are happy to now be taking off their masks and going to restaurants, you can thank everyone who got a vaccination and made it possible.

…you’re welcome.

April 2, 2022

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital