Poll explores hesitancy among older adults to get a COVID-19 vaccine

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/gilbert_mercier/49924257947">Gilbert Mercier</a> via Flickr

Photo: Gilbert Mercier via Flickr

A new poll of adults over age 50 – one of the highest-priority groups to receive a COVID-19 vaccine – suggests an uphill climb may lie ahead for some in this group to get vaccinated.

One in five older adults (20%) indicated they want to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. However, nearly half (46%) said they want to wait until others have received it, according to the survey released Nov. 24 by the National Poll on Healthy Aging project at University of Michigan.

Twenty percent were unsure about getting it, and 14% said they did not want to get it at all. When asked how likely they would be to get vaccinated if available at no cost, 58% of adults 50 to 80 said they were somewhat or very likely. More than one in four (28%) said they were unlikely; (11% were somewhat unlikely, 17% very unlikely); 14% were unsure or did not know.

While adults 65-80 had expressed more interest in getting vaccinated than those 50–64 (63% vs. 54%), women, people of color and respondents with lower incomes and education levels were less likely to say they’d seek vaccination in general. Only 40% of older adults who are Black, and 51% of those who are Hispanic, said they are somewhat or very likely to get vaccinated, despite the greater risk of hospitalization and death for members of these groups if they develop COVID-19. In contrast, whites, men and those with higher education levels were more likely to want to get vaccinated right away. One-quarter of respondents said they would consider participating in a vaccine clinical trial.

“Effective vaccines will be crucial to getting this pandemic under control and preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, especially among people over 50 and those with underlying health issues,” said Preeti Malani, M.D., the poll’s director and a specialist in geriatrics and infectious diseases at Michigan Medicine. “Our findings point to a strong need to communicate effectively and transparently about how well the vaccines work, the safeguards built in to protect the safety of recipients, and the public health importance of widespread vaccination starting with priority groups.”

The poll results come from a national sample taken in October of more than 2,000 adults 50 to 80  for U-M’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation; a total of 1,556 people responded. The results were analyzed before announcements from several pharma companies about the efficacy of their vaccine trials. Check out this post from Tara Haelle, AHCJ’s medical studies topic leader, to help you put these responses into greater context.

Factors in decision-making

Information on each vaccine’s efficacy and effectiveness will be paramount, according to the poll; 80% of respondents said they’d consider how well a vaccine works as part of making their vaccination decision. Just over half of respondents said their doctor’s recommendation would be very important, with 40% saying public health officials’ recommendations would be very important.

More than half of respondents said their own research would factor into their decisions. That suggests that the news media, government, vaccine makers, health organizations and other trusted sources be prepared to share easily understandable and accurate information about the vaccine, Malani said, including issues spotted during the clinical trials and about safeguards in place during vaccine development. Nearly half of poll respondents said they’re worried about the safety of a rapidly developed vaccine.

Reaching those on the fence about getting vaccinated – including the 14% who are unsure and the 11% somewhat unlikely to get vaccinated — also will be vital, as will issues around cost. Nearly one-third of respondents said cost would be a significant factor in their vaccination decision.

“We must make sure to address the concerns of people of color and those in low-income groups,” said Malani in a phone interview. “We need to address reasons for vaccine hesitancy in a culturally sensitive way.”

One factor that didn’t seem to make a difference in a person’s inclination to be vaccinated against COVID-19 was their personal experience with the disease, either in themselves or someone they know.

Just over half of poll respondents knew someone who had had COVID-19, and 2% said they’d been infected themselves. Nearly one in five said they knew someone who had died of COVID-19. But respondents with those experiences were no more likely to say they’d get vaccinated.

Journalists may want to speak with older people in their community to determine whether they are willing or hesitant to get vaccinated as soon as possible. What are their concerns? Does your reporting align with trends in the national poll?

Also, speak with aging-related health organizations, health systems and advocacy groups to find out their plans to address these concerns and assist people who may lack access to transportation, have mobility issues or are reluctant to line up at a clinic for shots. Are there plans to conduct outreach and education among low-income or specific ethnic/minority groups?

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