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