Unvaccinated Americans say COVID vaccines are riskier than the virus, even as Delta surges among them

·West Coast Correspondent
·6-min read

When asked which poses a greater risk to their health, more unvaccinated Americans say the COVID-19 vaccines than say the virus itself, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll — a view that contradicts all available science and data and underscores the challenges that the United States will continue to face as it struggles to stop a growing “pandemic of the unvaccinated” driven by the hyper-contagious Delta variant.

The survey of 1,715 U.S. adults, which was conducted from July 13 to 15, found that just 29 percent of unvaccinated Americans believe the virus poses a greater risk to their health than the vaccines — significantly less than the number who believe the vaccines represent the greater health risk (37 percent) or say they’re not sure (34 percent).

Over the last 18 months, COVID-19 has killed more than 4.1 million people worldwide, including more than 600,000 in the U.S. At the same time, more than 2 billion people worldwide — and more than 186 million Americans — have been at least partially vaccinated against the virus, and scientists who study data on their reported side effects continue to find that the vaccines are extraordinarily safe.

A supporter of President Donald Trump on Jan. 5 holds an anti-vaccine sign at a protest at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C.
A supporter of President Donald Trump on Jan. 5 holds an anti-vaccine sign at a protest at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. (Erin Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Yet 93 percent of unvaccinated U.S. adults — the equivalent of 76 million people — say they will either “never” get vaccinated (51 percent); that they will keep waiting “to see what happens to others before deciding” (20 percent); or that they’re not sure (22 percent).

With Delta rapidly becoming dominant nationwide, U.S. COVID-19 cases have surged by 140 percent over the last two weeks. Hospitalizations and deaths — both lagging indicators — are up by one-third over the same period. Missouri, Arkansas, Nevada and Florida are being hit particularly hard, with hospitalization rates soaring to 2-3 times the national average. Nearly all of the Americans who are falling ill, getting hospitalized and dying — 99 percent, according to some estimates — are unvaccinated. And more than half the U.S. population (52 percent) has yet to be fully inoculated.

As the Delta variant surges among the unvaccinated and counties such as Los Angeles reinstitute indoor mask mandates to try to stave it off, Yahoo News and YouGov sought to understand why so many Americans continue to hold off on vaccination — and whether Delta’s rise might change any minds.

The results are complicated. Some unvaccinated Americans recognize the rising threat of Delta. The share who say they are worried about the variant has risen 9 percentage points (from 25 percent to 34 percent) since last month. Yet the share of unvaccinated Americans who say they are not worried about Delta is larger, and it has risen by nearly as much (from 31 percent to 39 percent).

As such, just half of the unvaccinated say Delta poses “a serious risk” to “all Americans” (33 percent) or “unvaccinated Americans” (17 percent); the other half says the variant doesn’t pose a serious risk to anyone (30 percent) or that they’re not sure (20 percent). In contrast, a full 85 percent of vaccinated Americans — and 72 percent of all Americans — say Delta poses a serious risk.

Yet while unvaccinated Americans are relatively dismissive of Delta’s dangers — which have been amply proven by massive outbreaks in India and elsewhere — they tend to apply a much lower bar to the COVID vaccines. Asked to pick the “most important reason” they haven’t been vaccinated, for example, few say they lack “easy access to vaccination” (4 percent), “can’t get time off from work” (3 percent), or “already had COVID” (9 percent). More say they’re not worried about getting COVID (12 percent) or — far more frequently — that they don’t trust the COVID vaccines (45 percent).

Anti-vaccine rotesters holding placards gather at Indiana University's Sample Gates during a demonstration. (Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Anti-vaccine protesters gather at Indiana University's Sample Gates during a demonstration. (Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But why? The most important reason, according to 37 percent of unvaccinated Americans, is that they’re “concerned about long-term side effects.” That’s followed by “I don’t trust the government” (17 percent), “The vaccines are too new” (16 percent), “The FDA hasn’t fully approved the vaccines yet” (11 percent) and “I don’t trust any vaccines” (6 percent).

The trouble for public health officials is twofold. First, despite the fact that there’s no precedent in the history of vaccines for severe side effects emerging several months after dosage, let alone several years — and no mechanism by which the COVID vaccines would trigger such side effects — it’s difficult to convince skeptics that this time won’t be different. Meanwhile, the pandemic is ongoing and the clock is ticking.

Second, when unvaccinated skeptics are asked to select “all” the reasons they don’t trust the COVID vaccines — as opposed to just the “most important” — many select all of them. Seventy percent say they’re concerned about long-term side effects; 60 percent say the vaccines are too new; 55 percent say they don’t trust the government; 50 percent say they’re concerned about short-term side effects; 45 percent say the FDA hasn’t fully approved the vaccines yet; 45 percent say they don’t trust drug companies; and 26 percent say they don’t trust any vaccines. Hesitancy, in other words, could turn into a game of whack-a-mole: address one concern and another just pops up to replace it.

Whether Delta’s impact softens any of this resistance remains to be seen. Fifteen percent of unvaccinated Americans say the spread of Delta makes them more likely to get vaccinated, particularly Democrats (34 percent) and Latinos (34 percent). Yet another 12 percent of unvaccinated Americans actually say Delta makes them less likely to get a shot, and 73 percent say it makes “no difference.”

Delving deeper, 20 percent of unvaccinated Americans say they would be “much more” (10 percent) or “somewhat more” (10 percent) likely to get vaccinated “if COVID cases start to rise among unvaccinated people in [their] area”; the same goes for rising local hospitalizations and deaths. Likewise, 27 percent of unvaccinated Americans say they’d be either much more (12 percent) or somewhat more (15 percent) likely to get vaccinated when the FDA fully approves the COVID vaccines, which are currently authorized for emergency use to combat the pandemic.

Full FDA approval isn’t expected until next year. COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths, on the other hand, are already rising. We’ll see if either makes a difference.

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,715 U.S. adults interviewed online from July 13 to 15, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or non-vote), and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.7 percent.

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