Experts believe that it will do so without containment until enough Americans are immune to the virus that it can’t spread easily. And to reach that level of immunity, we’ll either need to see millions more infections — or a vaccine.
In other words, the way America can most safely return to normal life is with the development and distribution of a vaccine immunizing people against the virus. President Trump has made this a focal point of the government’s efforts, pledging a widely available vaccine by the end of the year. While experts doubt this will happen, Trump continues to use the availability of a vaccine as a point of optimism in his administration’s handling of the pandemic.
What’s odd about Trump’s focus on the vaccine, though, is that it’s Republicans who are most likely to say not only that they wouldn’t get a free coronavirus vaccine but, moreover, that they don’t see a vaccine as necessary in the first place.
That finding comes from new polling conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News. Most Americans, more than 7 in 10, say they would get a free vaccine, with 43 percent saying they would definitely do so. Among Republicans, though, only 58 percent say they would probably or definitely get the vaccine — with a quarter saying they definitely wouldn’t.
To some extent, that reflects existing skepticism about the importance of vaccinations. Gallup polling published in January shows that Democrats are 13 points more likely than Republicans to say that they think it’s extremely or very important that parents vaccinate their children. In 2001, the gap was only 4 points, and more than 90 percent of both Democrats and Republicans indicated that vaccinating children was important.
In the years since, there has been a concerted campaign aimed at undermining the utility of vaccines, often stemming from the erroneous belief that there’s a link between vaccines and autism. The result has been a subtle decline in confidence in vaccines, one which has been larger among Republicans than Democrats.
Asked why they wouldn’t get a coronavirus vaccine, most Republicans who said they probably wouldn’t get one identified a lack of trust in vaccines broadly as their rationale. But 15 percent said that it was because they don’t see the coronavirus vaccine as necessary — 11 percent of whom identified that as their main reason and 4 percent who said it was both unnecessary and that they don’t trust vaccines. By contrast, only 11 percent of Democrats said they don’t trust vaccines and 2 percent deemed this vaccine unnecessary.
The obvious question is why. Why are Republicans so skeptical about the need for this vaccine?
One likely explanation is that Trump’s earlier efforts to reassure the public that the pandemic wouldn’t be that bad involved downplaying the threat it posed. From assuring the public in late February that the number of cases would fade to comparing it to the seasonal flu to, more recently, claiming that there would be no significant resurgence of the virus in the fall, Trump has consistently suggested that it’s not something about which Americans need to be particularly concerned.
That attitude shows up in the Post-ABC poll, too. Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to say that they are concerned about they or their families contracting the virus.
They’re also far less concerned about the possibility of a resurgence at the outset of flu season.
In situations like this, causality can be tricky to identify. Are Republicans less concerned about the spread of the virus in general and, therefore, less concerned about the need for a vaccine? Is that a function of Trump’s comments about the pandemic or is he simply sharing their optimism?
The virus has hit Democratic areas (read: cities) harder than Republican ones, which one might think would make Republicans less concerned about the virus. But our polling indicates that this may be more about party than experience: There’s no significant difference in willingness to get the vaccine between those who do and those who don’t know someone who has already contracted it.
What’s concerning about these results, of course, is that we may be headed down two different paths to the sort of widespread immunity we need. Many Americans may embrace an eventual vaccine, hopefully providing long-lasting immunity to infection from the virus. Those who don’t get the vaccine may similarly develop immunity — by being exposed to and falling ill from it.