UO finds ‘concerning’ coronavirus vaccine hesitance, urges more aggressive public health messaging

Nearly a quarter of Oregonians say they won’t get the coronavirus vaccine, a finding that University of Oregon researchers say should be a ‘clarion call’ for a more aggressive fight against disinformation.

Vaccine skepticism runs deep in certain pockets of U.S. society, and particularly in Oregon – one of the few states to allow philosophical exemptions for school-age children whose parents don’t want them to get vaccinated for the measles, mumps and rubella.

While failing to get a vaccine can be a public health hazard no matter which disease it is intended to prevent, the coronavirus is a special case because it’s unlikely anybody is currently immune. Those who have been vaccinated still need to get another shot, and it’s unclear how long immunity lasts for those who have recovered from COVID-19.

About 3 million Oregonians must get vaccinated for the state’s 4.2-million population to achieve herd immunity, which is when enough people are inoculated for everyone else to be at substantially less risk of getting the disease. The more people are vaccinated, however, the safer for society as a whole.

University of Oregon researcher Benjamin Clark wanted to know exactly how well positioned Oregon is to battle and ultimately end the pandemic, given that so much of that work depends on individual choices. What he found, Clark said, was worse than he expected.

“There really is entrenched ignorance,” Clark said.


That applied to more than just fear of the coronavirus vaccine, Clark said, his research also identifying troubling patterns that he said likely contribute to the severity of the pandemic.

About one in five of the 638 people who answered Clark’s questions said they never socially distance when inside with friends. Three in 10 said they never wear a mask when gathering with friends indoors. One in 10 said they get together with 10 or more people on a weekly basis.

“These behaviors are contributing to the spread of COVID-19,” says the report that summarizes Clark’s findings.

But far from being only doom and gloom, the University of Oregon survey points to a perfect opportunity for health officials to take action, Clark said: Focusing on the 33{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} of Oregonians who said they have yet to decide how they feel about getting a shot.

The key to moving those Oregonians is to reinforce the vaccine’s safety, Clark said, because those who said they ‘may’ get a vaccine were more likely to say they feared it would give them the coronavirus.

But it’s not enough to simply say that the coronavirus vaccine is safe. Instead, Clark said, the state must actively identify conspiracy theories and disinformation and publicly debunk them.

He said agencies must also be forthright about the real risks of vaccines, making clear those risks are next to non-existent when compared to the potential outcomes of a coronavirus infection.

“The public, in general, is used to the concept of side-effects,” said Robert Parker, one of Clark’s colleagues on the project, urging officials to trust Oregonians to understand the balance of risks and benefits. “They can handle this, too.”

Stronger messaging would save lives, Clark said. The good news is that Oregon has plenty of lead time before most Oregonians will actually have a choice to get the coronavirus vaccine. Officials are going down a long and as-yet imprecise list of populations prioritized for vaccinations.

At current vaccine supply rates, it will be well into 2021 before people who aren’t elderly or essential workers can get a shot. The state is currently working through approximately 300,000 front line health care workers while pharmaceutical giants CVS and Walgreens are giving shots to the 60,000 or so people who live or work in senior care.

As of midnight, 14,524 Oregonians had received their first of two mandatory vaccine shots.

The UO researchers have shared their findings with state health officials, as well as Lane County Public Health. That agency’s spokesman, Jason Davis, said he’s not surprised by the results, given the findings of an October survey focused on Lane County and health officials’ anecdotal observations.

Clark’s findings point to growing hesitancy about vaccines, Davis said, even among those who “derive their beliefs and opinions from solid empirical data and scientific research,” and growing fatigue surrounding mask-wearing and social-distancing.

“We have our work cut out for us!” Davis said.

— Fedor Zarkhin | [email protected] | 503-294-7674