Vaccinations are the strongest weapon in the fight against COVID-19. That’s why it’s essential to understand who’s not getting inoculated — and why. A new survey by the University of South Florida helps explain what’s driving vaccine hesitancy, and it offers clues for a new approach in Florida.
University researchers surveyed 600 residents across the state and found that 36 percent of respondents said they have not received the coronavirus vaccine. Sixteen percent said they have no intention of getting vaccinated in the future. Nearly three-fourths of those who are vaccine hesitant, and who said they “probably” or “definitely” won’t get the vaccine, blamed a concern for side effects. Large numbers complained the vaccines were produced too quickly or said they don’t believe the vaccines prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As the Tampa Bay Times’ Ian Hodgson reported, the findings reflect the extent that rumor, second-hand information and outright falsehoods are having on Florida’s vaccination rate, which already lags the national average. After all, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that severe or life-threatening reactions to the vaccines are rare. The vaccines were produced relatively quickly because they were created using established mRNA technology. And federal data show the three vaccines currently authorized and recommended for use in the U.S. are highly effective. They also are readily available and free.
Stephan Neely, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, who helped coordinate the survey, said the findings reveal just how widely misinformation has spread among Florida residents. Nearly three-quarters of respondents say they’ve heard at least one harmful rumor about the vaccine in the past six months; one-third said they heard at least four rumors. And that misinformation has helped drive the inoculation gap, as skeptics put off getting vaccinated for one reason or another. Too many people are taking their cues from social media instead of from public health experts or even their own family physicians.
The findings put some much-needed nuance into the debate over how to overcome vaccine hesitancy. While a small portion of the holdouts appear to be genuine anti-vaxxers, a larger segment is citing a number of hurdles (both real and imagined) for not getting inoculated, ranging from health concerns and mistrust of government to a lack of transportation or convenient access to care.
Florida needs to move quickly to address these challenges. The lagging vaccination rates in the rural areas, especially throughout the Panhandle, call for more mobile vaccination units, closer collaboration with primary care providers and a renewed media push to debunk false claims. Florida is not among the 11 states with the lowest vaccination rates among seniors, but most of those states are in the south, making proximity our enemy as the summer travel season heats up, and as the Delta variant — the most highly transmissible variant around — puts the unvaccinated population at even greater risk.
The broader reopening of the economy and the continued relaxation of masking, social distancing and other safety precautions shows the value and vested interest Florida has in further turning the corner. This is no time to fall back in the fight, or to turn a blind eye to a rising threat in any corner of the state. USF has provided valuable insight into what’s driving these decisions for many Floridians, and it, in turn, provides a guide for more effective public health messaging.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.