Letters to the Editor • Opinion
Is the pandemic under control? Yes. Over? No.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some striking numbers on the unvaccinated among us

Demonstrators rally against coronavirus vaccine mandates in New York on Monday. (Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg News)

There are valid debates to be had about whether the federal or even state governments should mandate coronavirus vaccines (which, despite what you might have heard, is still not the Biden administration’s actual policy).

There is considerably less real debate about whether virtually anything else would do the trick in converting most of the remaining vaccine holdouts.

An extensive Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday laid bare the steep hurdles — which go far beyond vaccine safety — when it comes to persuading the unvaccinated to get the shot and truly help stomp out a virus that is thriving upon their refusal. While the number who are truly dug in has declined over the course of 2021, it has done so slowly. And it’s logical to assume the remaining unvaccinated are even more committed to their status than the converts were.

How committed are they? The Pew poll shows about two-thirds of the unvaccinated (68 percent) say they know someone who has been hospitalized or has died of covid-19. But just 37 percent of them say the virus is a major threat to the health of the U.S. population.

This belief that a virus that has killed over 660,000 Americans somehow isn’t really a big deal has been a strong and consistent thread in vaccine skepticism, which really began as skepticism about the pandemic writ large (see: “It’s just the flu”).

But there are a number of other factors on which the unvaccinated are just as far out of step, which seemingly combine for a witches’ brew of vaccine refusal.

A big one is peer pressure — or the lack thereof. The vaccination campaign has left us increasingly divided between red states and blue states when it comes to vaccination rates. But even within those states, it has resulted in wider gaps between heavily vaccinated communities and largely unvaccinated ones.

The remaining unvaccinated have far fewer friends or people around them who might urge vaccination than the rest of the population. In fact, while 59 percent of vaccinated people say most people around them encourage getting vaccinated, that’s true of just 11 percent of unvaccinated people. (A plurality say there’s about an even mix of pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine views.)

It’s possible that some are hearing only the messages they want to hear, but it also means very few of the holdouts are internalizing a largely pro-vaccine message from the people they know best.

There is also a strong vein of what can perhaps best be described as an all-encompassing, nothing-really-matters skepticism running through the unvaccinated community.

That these people would be suspect about the vaccine isn’t surprising, either, and they are — and hardly just when it comes to safety. Just 23 percent say vaccines are the best way to protect against the virus (including only a handful who strongly agree with that).

But the poll also shows they are largely dismissive of virtually any mitigation. Just 12 percent say coronavirus restrictions have done a lot to prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

Unvaccinated people are also less likely to be concerned about becoming infected and requiring hospitalization (32 percent) than vaccinated people (50 percent), even though they’re significantly more likely to wind up there.

That makes some sense if you somehow don’t believe the virus is that bad. What struck me about Pew’s numbers, though, is that they show an even bigger gap when it comes to concern for others.

While 66 percent of vaccinated people say they are worried about unknowingly spreading the virus to others, just 38 percent of unvaccinated people say the same. This is, again, among a group of people in which two-thirds say they personally know someone who has died or been hospitalized.

That lack of concern for hurting others was also borne out elsewhere. Even if you don’t trust the vaccines and think this should be your choice, that’s not necessarily the same as believing getting one wouldn’t be good for others. But very few unvaccinated people indicate they feel such responsibility. Asked whether they believed remaining unvaccinated is hurting the country, just 13 percent agreed that it did. Fully 87 percent suggested it had no real impact.

So in sum, the vast majority of the unvaccinated don’t think vaccination is the best tool (it is), don’t seem to think much of anything really helps stop the virus, don’t worry about infecting others, and feel almost nothing in terms of a collective responsibility.

That’s not really a recipe for mass conversion. And when that’s gone, about all you have left is compulsion.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.