Misinformation is keeping Floridians from getting vaccinated, USF survey shows

The more someone is exposed to misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, the survey shows, the less likely they are to get vaccinated.
A healthcare worker prepares the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a Tampa clinic for the homeless set up Thursday by the Heart for the Homeless nonprofit.
A healthcare worker prepares the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a Tampa clinic for the homeless set up Thursday by the Heart for the Homeless nonprofit. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published June 19, 2021

A new survey shows Florida’s vaccination efforts are being hampered by misinformation and political polarization.

University of South Florida researchers surveyed 600 residents across the state, and 36 percent of respondents said they have not yet received the coronavirus vaccine while 16 percent said they no intention of getting vaccinated in the future.

The answers of those respondents reveal what researchers call the “most significant drivers of vaccine hesitancy.”

The survey shows 74 percent of vaccine-hesitant responders who said they “probably” or “definitely” won’t get the vaccine blamed side effects. About 51 percent said they believe the vaccines were produced too quickly while 21 percent said they don’t believe vaccines prevent the spread of COVID-19.

All those concerns are based on falsehoods. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that severe or life-threatening reactions to vaccines are rare. The vaccines were created using established mRNA technology. Federal data shows the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are more than 90 percent effective and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is more than 66 percent effective at preventing illness.

Related: Vaccine hesitant? We want to hear from you.

The survey reveals just how widely misinformation has spread among Florida residents, said Stephan Neely, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs who helped conduct the survey.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents say they’ve heard at least one harmful rumor about the coronavirus vaccine in the past 6 months; a third say they’ve heard at least four rumors.

But the survey shows a person doesn’t have to believe a rumor for it to impact their decision to get vaccinated. Among respondents who hadn’t been exposed to misinformation, 74 percent had already been vaccinated. That number falls to 63 percent after they encounter at least one source of misinformation.

And of those who were exposed to six or more harmful rumors, only half said they’ve been vaccinated.

“That exposure is sufficient to plant the idea in your head, that something may or may not be true, and to kind of create that hesitancy,” Neely said. “It doesn’t necessarily even have to be something you believe for it to start kind of creeping into your thinking.”

The survey was conducted by a team of USF researchers who contacted 600 Floridians on June 3 and June 14 who are representative of the state’s age, racial and gender composition.

“It’s shocking to see it written down,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, about the survey’s findings. His organization tracks the spread of vaccination misinformation through social media and other platforms.

“We know that over 50 million Americans directly follow one of the either a group or an individual who’s spreading misinformation on social media,” he said. “And if they’re sharing it with their friends, it doesn’t take many clicks of the share button before you get 75 (percent).”

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Those who are hesitant aren’t necessarily anti-vaxxers, either. Less than 18 percent of those who said they were vaccine hesitant said they oppose vaccines in general.

“It’s less ‘I hate vaccines’ and more ‘I’m hearing all sorts of stuff and I just can’t deal with it right now,’” Ahmed said. “It’s really a tiny number of people who are genuine anti-vaxxers.”

One of the best ways to dispel misinformation, experts say, is to talk to a trusted medical expert like a primary physician. But fewer than a third of the Floridians who responded to the survey have talked to their primary physician about getting vaccinated.

“So one of the big takeaways there is that we just need to better inform people about the process by which the vaccines were created,” Neely said. “Yes, the COVID vaccine itself was created in record time. But the mRNA technology behind those vaccines has been developed for years.”

The study doesn’t report whether those who talked to a doctor were more likely to be vaccinated.

Related: False vaccine claims persist on Facebook, despite a ban. Here’s why

About 80 percent of Americans report that their family physician is their most trusted source of information about the vaccine, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the overwhelming majority of doctors strongly recommend patients get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead people turn to the internet for answers, Ahmed said, and “there’s a great disparity between those being exposed to misinformation via social media, and those receiving good information from their physician”

Part of the problem is the loss of regular personal contact with a medical professional during the lockdown, said Dr. Christina Eldredge, a former family physician who now teaches health informatics at the University of Florida.

“In the pandemic we were separated from each other,” Eldredge said, “not just our friends and family, but from our trusted healthcare providers as well.”

The survey suggests another reason why people aren’t listening to their doctors: polarization. Political alignment is one of the biggest determining factors whether or not someone has been vaccinated.

Three-quarters of respondents who identify as Democrats say they’ve been vaccinated. That number drops to less than 60 percent for Republicans and Independents, according to the USF survey.

“This new pattern in vaccine hesitancy that we’ve seen around the COVID vaccine is in part because of the deliberate targeting of Republicans, and in particular Trump supporters,” Ahmed said.

“The reason for all of this is primarily social media,” he said. “And the fact that (social media companies) profit not just from people before visiting those platforms to see misinformation, but also the subsequent debate over that misinformation.”

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