Unvaccinated by Choice: Why People are Resisting the COVID-19 Vaccine

By Nicole Kiley & Grace Hellwarth

Despite large-scale COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the United States, the public remains divided on the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. According to a May 2021 New York Times newsletter, about 40 percent of the country has yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine shot. The reality is that the majority of people in this category are unvaccinated by choice.

The Biden Administration has advocated for the vaccine and has urged the public to receive it once eligible. The science also supports the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pfizer vaccine decreases risk of moderate to severe COVID-19 disease by 95 percent. The Moderna vaccine is comparable with a 94 percent decrease in risk. Yet, people still hold reservations about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. 

Common Ground: Everyone has been Impacted by the Pandemic

Where people seem to agree is that the pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. Participant Halle said, “My brother is disabled, so he’s more at risk, so since I work and do school I had to move away from my family to keep them safe.” From immunocompromised loved ones to job losses, no one has been unaffected by the pandemic. 

The other participants also shared how the pandemic has negatively affected their lives. Participant Riya said, “I’ve noticed my screen time go up a lot due to everything just mostly, primarily being virtual. I feel like there’s been a lot of hecticness just throughout our lives, and a lot of confusion going forward, so that is basically how I would sum up COVID.” Starting the facilitated dialogue with participants sharing their adversities allowed everyone to identify what they had in common. This common ground helped participants listen to opposing views.

COVID-19 Vaccination Concerns

Several common concerns emerged when asking participants to express their views on COVID-19 vaccinations. In this part of the Generative Dialogue session, participants typed their concerns on sticky notes, as shown in the visual below. 

Along with the other concerns expressed, people yet to receive a vaccine commonly questioned its long-term efficacy. Participant Margueritta said, “I just don’t think that we know enough at this point, so in order to encourage everyone to feel comfortable getting the vaccine we should have answers to our concerns regarding long term effects, and I think that’s a valid thing to ask.” Participants said how the expediency of vaccine production warranted cause for concern. 

Another participant questioned the efficacy of vaccinations when considering new variants. “We keep hearing about new variants that are causing breakthrough infections, and we’ll need a third shot depending on the vaccine that someone chooses to get,” Yash said. “Are these vaccines actually going to be worth it in the longer term? Can we actually get it out to the world to stop this pandemic?” Such unknowns about the virus and the vaccine’s long-term efficacy leave people hesitant to get it.

Expanding on the vaccine timeline, participant Lakshya questioned the vaccines’ effectiveness. “Because the vaccines came out relatively quickly compared to other vaccines in general, we don’t know how effective it may or may not be in the long run. With different types of strains still emerging that could have adverse effects in the future,” said Lakshya.

Distrust in Health Organizations 

When asked about trustworthy sources for COVID-19 information, participants expressed distrust in health organizations and government. As part of the facilitated dialogue process, participants ranked various information sources based on a circle of trust, as pictured below. Examples of information sources ranged from one’s family to the World Health Organization. The center circle of the diagram represented trustworthy information sources and the outermost circle represented untrustworthy information sources. Participants were asked to explain where their information sources ranked and why. 

Some participants expressed distrust in health officials and organizations. Participant Margueritta said, “I have CDC and WHO on my outer circle, just because I’m not very trustworthy of them.” Despite the science backing claims about the effectiveness of the vaccine, there remains distrust in the entities that have a vested interest in public health.

Another participant shared her hesitation to fully trust information from governmental entities. Participant Halle said, “I put government in the middle, just because there’s been misinformation published, but there’s also been correct things published.” 

Gaps in COVID-19 Vaccination Information

Journalists play a substantial role in providing information about the COVID-19 vaccine to the public. However, there are gaps between journalists’ stories and readers’ questions, regardless if either advocates for the vaccine or not. 

During the facilitated dialogue, participants were asked to share what stories surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine they would like to read about in the news. One participant explained that he wants to read about the other perspective. “I’d like to see some breakdown about why some groups are against the vaccine and what’s holding them back,” said Yash. 

Another participant was concerned about the transparency of information as it develops for scientists. Riya claimed,“I would like to personally be more informed on consistent updates within the clinical trials as they see them. More specifically, all these variants and mutations with COVID-19.” 

In a similar manner, other participants wanted to know more about long term effects of the vaccine. Halle said, “I wasn’t one of the first people to get the vaccine, but I got it in early January…so just seeing how it affects people long term. I’ve had no side effects or anything, but things could happen to other people.”

Despite large-scale rollout, promising statistics rooted in science, and government backing, it is clear that people still hold reservations about the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. This distrust indicates a gap between journalists and the public in regard to vaccine information. In order for people to feel trust in the vaccine, and thus put an end to the global health crisis, journalists need to disseminate information that addresses prevailing vaccination concerns.

This student-produced story was reported and written in Professor DeVigal’s engaged journalism class in the winter of 2021. The course focused on the Generative Dialogue Framework (GDF) to host small-group conversations with folks across the U.S. Learn more about this process in this article: University of Oregon students test a new framework for dialogue-driven reporting.