The Challenge of Vaccine Hesitancy Didn’t Start with COVID-19, and it Won’t End There


Will COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation Lead to More Measles, Flu and Shingles?

Cecelia Thomas, JD

Just over one year has passed since the first availability of the COVID-19 vaccine. At this one-year mark 63 percent of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated. This ranks the United States as 60th in the world based on the percentage of fully vaccinated individuals. To say that these rates are troubling is an understatement. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy, the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines, as one of the top ten threats to global health. The consequences of this threat are tragically apparent with the deaths of mostly unvaccinated Americans. High levels of vaccine hesitancy have slowed the world’s ability to move past the pandemic and may be what’s allowed new variants of the virus to emerge.  Without addressing the root causes of vaccine hesitancy, more preventable infectious disease outbreaks will occur, and they will cost thousands of more lives in addition to further social and economic disruption.

Reasons for Vaccine Hesitancy
The problem of vaccine hesitancy did not start with COVID-19 and it likely won’t end there. In communities of color, vaccine hesitancy stems from long-standing health disparities and medical mistreatment . These deep and painful roots in this country’s history are exacerbated by the persistence of racial discrimination and bias in healthcare today and by practical barriers to vaccination such as health coverage limitations, inadequate transportation, and insufficient paid time off. While communities of color and low-income communities have had the most pervasive vaccine hesitancy historically, these groups are far from the only groups driving current vaccine hesitancy.

Efforts to rectify these past and present injustices should focus on cultural competence training for medical providers and community leaders on issues related to COVID-19 and routine vaccinations for children and adults. In addition, we need to improve vaccine accessibility and transparency. Other groups, other than populations that are systematically marginalized, such as white Evangelical Christians, have also expressed high rates of vaccine hesitancy before and throughout the pandemic. The politicization of public health that occurred during the last election intensified anti-vaccine sentiments, while social media and other platforms have allowed for the increased spread of misinformation.

Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy through Policy
Congress has recently passed legislation to fund fortified public health infrastructure to conduct and support widespread outreach, engagement, and vaccinations to communities across the nation. In addition, the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force served as a forum for experts in the field to comprehensively address disparities in pandemic-related inequalities and develop solutions to issues such as vaccine accessibility and hesitancy. These are crucial steps at the federal level. States should follow suit with steps to bolster vaccination access and education.  Vaccine mandate bans are a step in the wrong direction and bad public policy.

Long-term Impacts of Vaccine Hesitancy
The U.S. also remains vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases such as flu, hepatitis B, pneumococcal, and shingles, due to under-vaccination. The threat of increased hesitance could further endanger people at higher risk for severe outcomes including older adults and people with underlying health conditions.  A year before the pandemic, the U.S. was in the midst of its worst measles outbreak in two decades and just narrowly preserved its measles elimination status.  The seasonal flu vaccine has also remained significantly underutilized in recent years. The lowest flu vaccination rate in recent years,  42% during the 2017-2018 flu season, contributed to 2017-2018 being the deadliest flu season in 40 years with 80,000 deaths. Despite this tragic reality check, the flu vaccination rate has yet to increase past 49% . If vaccination rates for diseases such as the seasonal flu do not improve, the combined burden of these infectious diseases will further strain the healthcare system and cause needless death and illness. There has also been a significant drop in routine vaccination rates across all ages due to the pandemic.  Adult vaccination rates are already far below Healthy People 2030 goals pre-pandemic and an estimated 26 million doses for adults and adolescents were missed in 2020.

Looking Forward
Congress, the Biden Administration and public health advocates must continue to work on immunization catch-up and support efforts to maintain high immunization coverage rates. These efforts are especially critical for the communities most impacted by COVID-19, such as communities of color and children. In October 2020, Trust for America’s Health co-hosted a national convening on building vaccine confidence and ensuring equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine in communities of color, in partnership with the National Medical Association and UnidosUS. The policy recommendations of this report apply to other groups with growing rates of vaccine hesitancy, such as people who identify as politically conservative. Recommendations from the resulting policy brief also extend beyond the COVID-19 vaccine:

  • Expanding federal funding to support and strengthen national, state, local, Tribal and territorial work on equitable and effective vaccination planning, communications, distribution and administration, including funding to support vaccine distribution at the local level and by community-based organizations;
  • Collaborating with trusted community messengers/leaders for vaccine administration and education;
  • Creating culturally and linguistically appropriate vaccine education;
  • Ensuring zero out-of-pocket costs for individuals receiving recommended vaccines; and
  • Collecting complete disaggregated racial and ethnic data on adverse experiences in healthcare as well as health outcomes.

While these recommendations are most immediately applicable to the COVID-19 pandemic, they will also be important to increasing vaccine trust in the future.  These methods have already begun to work, vaccine hesitancy and racial gaps in vaccinations are beginning to slowly decrease. We must build on this momentum and prioritize increasing vaccine confidence across the U.S. to ensure that the nation is better prepared for future public health crises.

Cecelia Thomas, JD, is a Senior Government Relations Manager at Trust for America’s Health