The COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by conundrums. Some people get very sick, others show no symptoms. The old are especially vulnerable, young children are not. Some recover in a few days, others endure long and debilitating symptoms.
Now comes perhaps the most perplexing riddle of this public health crisis: Most are eager to receive a vaccine that will protect them and their community from COVID-19, but others – including one in five North Carolina adults – do not intend to get the shot that will shield them from a virus that has killed half a million Americans.
And within this resistance is yet another contradiction. Opposition is high in very different groups: Black people who mistrust the medical establishment because of past abuses and neglect; and rural white Republicans and evangelicals, who object to what they consider a government overreaction to the pandemic that they see as a push to impose a liberal agenda.
Because of this level of vaccine hesitancy, the nation may not attain the level of immunity – now estimated at 70 to 85 percent of the population – that is needed to vanquish COVID-19. Instead, the virus could continue to spread and potentially mutate in ways that could overcome current vaccine-induced immunity.
North Carolina’s Gov. Roy Cooper and state public health officials have done fine work on pandemic-related restrictions and vaccinations, but now they must find a way to get over the last and daunting hurdle of vaccine hesitancy. The vaccine supply and the number of people vaccinated are growing, but the share of unvaccinated people who want a shot is shrinking.
Cooper noted this inversion last week at a news conference. “I think we’re, pretty quickly, going to reach the point where supply will exceed demand,” he said. “We need to flip it over to make sure we’re encouraging people to get vaccinated.”
A state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) survey found that North Carolinians are more open to getting vaccinated than they were in a November DHHS survey. But the survey also found significant resistance among those who are unvaccinated and have no appointment to get a shot.
DHHS is trying to break down vaccine hesitancy by educating the public about how getting vaccinated will help individuals, families and communities. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen recently joined the Rev. William J. Barber in getting a shot. Barber, a Goldsboro minister and national advocate for civil rights and the poor, urged lower-income and Black North Carolinians to get vaccinated. “This is about caring for the people around you, about being your brother’s and sisters’ keeper,” he said.
Education about the vaccines’ safety and appeals to conscience may be effective with those who doubt the safety of the vaccines. Public health and political leaders may have a harder time getting conservative white evangelicals to roll up their sleeves for the shot.
Jason Byler, pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Church in Rolesville, said he is not opposed to vaccines but he is resistant to taking a new vaccine being pushed by the government after a year of other pandemic restrictions. “They’re taking away more and more of our freedoms,” he told the Editorial Board. “It’s part of a political move on the part of progressives and communists.”
For now, government and community leaders can try to persuade the hesitant and unwilling to get vaccinated. But if the resistance is substantial enough that it threatens the state and nation’s ability to reach safe levels of immunity, more direct measures may arise.
Airlines may require proof of vaccination before passengers can fly. More colleges might require it for students on campus. Some events might require it for admission. Freedom needs to be honored and no one should be forced to get vaccinated. But every effort should be made to persuade vaccine resisters to get a shot for their benefit, for the protection of others, and to help us beat this virus.