Despite the widespread availability of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, the United States has fallen narrowly short of vaccination goals established by the Biden administration. As agencies and officials at all levels of government continue efforts to promote vaccination, our research shows that misinformation and politicization are among the most significant drivers of vaccine hesitancy. This suggests public officials may need inventive strategies to change attitudes and effectively persuade people to accept the COVID-19 vaccine.
The School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida recently conducted a survey of 600 adult Floridians to measure exposure to misinformation and common objections to vaccination. The results suggest that the attainment of herd immunity will require enhanced public health messaging that addresses specific misinformation themes, while also speaking individually to diverse ideological communities.
Among the most significant findings from the survey was a sharp divergence in vaccination rates based on political affiliation. Specifically, 66% of self-identified Democrats reported being fully vaccinated, compared to only 54% of self-identified Republicans and 50% of Independents. Across the board, these numbers fall notably short of both the White House’s vaccination goals and the thresholds estimated by health experts to achieve herd immunity. However, the partisan differences themselves are instructive.
Although civil servants and public health officials might wish to stay above the political fray, these data remind us that the real-world effects of politicization cannot be overlooked when it comes to public health messaging and policy implementation. The more that people view COVID-19 as a partisan issue, the more likely they are to seek informational cues from political thought leaders rather than health professionals.
The survey also highlighted Americans’ widespread exposure to vaccine-related misinformation, as well as a clear link between misinformation exposure and vaccination. Drawing on both academic research and public health guidance, we identified eight common misinformation themes related to COVID-19 vaccines. Based on these themes, nearly three-quarters of respondents (73%) reported at least some degree of exposure to misinformation. The most commonly encountered misinformation themes included claims that 1) COVID-19 vaccines contain a live strain of the virus; 2) COVID-19 vaccines contain 5G microchips; and 3) COVID-19 vaccines modify the recipients’ genes and alter their DNA. More than a third of respondents reported encountering each of these claims, while 42% encountered the first.
Perhaps most importantly, the results showed a clear correlation between misinformation exposure and vaccine acceptance. Among those respondents who did not encounter any misinformation, 74% reported being vaccinated. That number fell to 63% among respondents exposed to just one misinformation theme, and to 52% among those who encountered six or more. The differences were found to be statistically significant.
Reason for Optimism
While these findings are discouraging, there is reason for public officials and healthcare professionals to hope. Recent studies have found evidence that misinformation can be overcome by effective and targeted messaging. The conveyance of those messages will require trust capital between professionals and local community leaders. Transparent and respectful communication is key to an informed decision-making process aimed at reducing vaccination hesitancy.
Ultimately, those who view COVID-19 as a partisan issue will need to be reassured of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy by trusted, political thought leaders who share their ideological perspectives. Even those with medically grounded objections—such as concerns over potential side effects or implications for fertility—are more likely to be persuaded by targeted rather than broad public health messaging. Recent research in the field of medicine has suggested that the testimony of individual experts such as practicing physicians is more compelling for information consumers than institutional messaging.
Like it or not, efforts to promote vaccination will need to overcome these hurdles, which means that public leaders and health professionals will need to get creative in their outreach efforts. This may include pursuing active measures to counteract common misinformation themes in venues such as social media, while also partnering directly with clinical healthcare providers at the local level. It also means engaging with political thought leaders at the local, state, and national levels to speak to the hesitancy of skeptical audiences.
*The survey was conducted as a web-panel between June 3 and 14, 2021. Sample was purchased through Prodege MR, a leading market research vendor. The sample of 600 adult Floridians was fielded using a stratified, quota sampling method to ensure representativeness (by region of the state) based on age, gender, race, and ethnicity. Results are reported with a confidence level of 95% and a margin of error +/- 4.0.
Robin L. Ersing, PhD, is Associate Professor and the Director of the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs. Stephen Neely, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Public Administration with the school. Christa Remington, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration with the school.