In the U.S., the reservoir of vaccine resistance is large enough to prevent control of the coronavirus pandemic. Since COVID-19 vaccines were first authorized, over half of all U.S. COVID-19 cases — an estimated 23 million new infections — and more than 300,000 deaths have occurred. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that just from June through August of this year, 287,000 preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations of unvaccinated adults (out of 530,000 in total) cost over $5.7 billion for the hospital care alone, not to mention the impact of these illnesses on families, communities, and the economy.
Maximizing the immunization of Americans is necessary to stop the pandemic, but so far, our attempts to get the holdouts vaccinated has proven futile. It’s time for a new approach. One focused less on the facts and the benefits of vaccination, and more on tapping into the deeply held values of the resisters.
First, it’s important to look into the vaccine holdout psyche. The most vocal and significant group of stalwart vaccine resisters tends to be geographically concentrated and broadly dispersed around the country, and includes many vulnerable citizens making them a catalytic source of continuing infectious spread. Crucial to understanding (and empathizing with) them is appreciating that for these folks, objecting to immunization has become a moral issue, as well as a value-laden and integral aspect of their being, a reflection of their persona. Their values motivate their emotionally assertive, angry public protests and their dedication to disrupting existing public health infrastructure and government order while feeling patriotic for defending their values. They have a morality-based resistance, rationalized with many explanations including scientific skepticism, faith in natural products and healing, and strongly proclaiming their American constitutional rights and responsibility to protect their own individual freedom and liberty.
Importantly, they do not reject treatments: accepting both scientifically rejected medications such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, and, when infected, accepting monoclonal antibodies, hospitalization, and intensive care. Their perspective has been mobilized and reinforced, but not created, by ongoing support and encouragement from lively parts of traditional and social media, and many admired faith-based and political leaders. Even more importantly, they have persisted in their resistance as COVID-19 has ravaged their communities, neighbors, and families.