SAN JOSE, Calif. – We’re all desperate for a magic bullet that will restore our pre-COVID lives.
But even some of science’s most ardent fans say they’re reluctant to roll up their sleeves and participate in the pandemic’s first wave of inoculations, unnerved by reports of a rushed timetable, politicization and poor communication.
There isn’t a vaccine yet – and with initial supplies very limited, such apprehension may not pose an immediate problem, say experts. But persistent distrust could spell trouble for the nation’s ambitious Operation Warp Speed campaign to protect all Americans.
These aren’t your usual “anti-vaxxers,” the traditional tinfoil-hat conspiratorialists or fear-mongering celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Rather, they are “vaccine hesitants,” a broad and diverse spectrum of Californians whose real world experience of the pandemic so far – and lifelong interactions with government or healthcare systems – has sown distrust.
“It’s not anti-science that’s driving it. Instead, it’s questioning the integrity of the scientific research. It’s a socio-political issue – whether our current infrastructure is promoting the interests of the public, or the power interests, financial interests, corporate interests,” said Maya J. Goldenberg of Canada’s University of Guelph, author of the forthcoming book Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science.
Some so-called “hesitants” are liberals who are suspicious of President Donald Trump’s cheerleading; others are anti-government libertarians. If affluent, they’re happy to wait at home until there’s more research. If poor, they are frustrated that vaccine manufacturers seem to be wooing Wall Street investors, not hard-hit minority communities.
“I believe in vaccines. They’ve helped my family and reduced the mortality of poor people,” said Margaret Gordon, a great-grandmother and co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, a community-based organization that monitors air quality.
“But we need more evidence. We have no assurance they’ll work,” she said. “There hasn’t been any real public education.”
As deaths mount, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it will consider historic “emergency use authorization” of a vaccine that shows safety and efficacy. This means looking at interim results of trials that would ordinarily take years, so data will be preliminary and incomplete.
To be sure, many Americans say they would welcome anything that offers hope.
In the hard-hit Latinx community, “we have to do something. I think people will be ready. We have people dying from this,” said Ignacio De La Fuente, a business consultant and former Oakland city councilman.
“The reality is, where we are today and what we are experiencing, it will be necessary to get the vaccine,” agreed Oakland Councilman Noel Gallo, whose district includes the Fruitvale, with more infections than any neighborhood in Alameda County, the Bay Area’s hardest-hit county.
But surveys show overall diminishing support. Between May and September, the number of Americans who said they would “definitely or probably” get the vaccine fell from 72% to 51%, according to a Pew poll. In California, two-thirds of those polled said they were concerned about vaccine approval moving too fast.
Predictably, the “anti-vaxxers” have seized the moment, alleging that the Moderna vaccine contains a dangerous chemical, the Astra Zeneca vaccine transmits virus and the government is using a secret defense contractor to deploy vaccines and create a surveillance state.
But distrust has broadened to include many others.
Those suspicious of Big Pharma saw early news conferences with industry CEOs as proof that “the bottom line is about shareholders,” said the University of California, Riverside professor of public policy Richard Carpiano. “There was not really much science… It was industry types, using ‘corporate talk’ about earnings reports.”
The live-free-or-die Libertarian crowd, already angered by mask mandates and business closures, sees vaccines as another government overreach, he said, with the military-sounding Operation Warp Speed campaign “feeding into a nightmare scenario of forced vaccinations.”
Then there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum: Liberals who believe so firmly in public health that they want to see data – lots of data. And no political drama.
“The concern is that the vaccine studies are too small,” said Berkeley-based health activist Karuna Jaggar. Because rare side effects may not show up in small or short trials, “we want to make sure that there are enough people, and that those people are diverse enough.”
The power struggles between the administration and regulators worsens anxieties, said Jaggar. “We deserve an FDA that puts public health before politics.”
Meanwhile, the Black community feels ignored, said Dr. Owen Garrick of Oakland’s Bridge Clinical Research, which works to engage minorities in medical research. To counter distrust built from decades of discriminatory health care, he suggested better communication from manufacturers.
“I would have expected something that said: ‘Here’s our strategy – help us think through the best ways to engage.’ But there’s been very little of that,” he said. “So people think either you made a conscious decision not to include them, or you didn’t think enough of them to bother.”
In Portola Valley, Kathleen Bennett is a fierce believer in vaccines, but has decided to wait it out, safe in her comfortable home, until more safety data accumulates.
“I am quite ‘sheltered in place,’” said Bennett, founder of The Girls’ Middle School. “I don’t feel I have to rush to get the very first COVID-19 vaccine. I don’t want to be among the first guinea pigs.”
But with a two-week family vacation to Hawaii planned for next winter, she’ll reconsider her decision next autumn, when there is more and better data.
“My hope is by next September, the first or second vaccines will have rolled out, and they have begun to see if they are safe and efficacious,” said Bennett.
That wait-and-see approach, combined with better outreach, could slowly build trust across the nation, said Goldenberg.
”Hopefully, we will see that we have an excellent product,” she said. “The more data we accumulate, and the more we share those findings with the public, the more willing people will be to get the vaccine for themselves and for their family.
”Over time,” she said, “that will bring more people in.”
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