March 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of the official declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic by the World Health Organization. The first case of coronavirus was reported in the U.S. in January 2020. Two months later, the infection rate was accelerating, prompting former President Trump to declare novel coronavirus a national emergency, unlocking billions of dollars in federal funding to mitigate the spread. What ensued was unprecedented.

Worldwide quarantines shuttered businesses, churches, and schools, bringing life as we knew it to a screeching halt. Sports arenas were silent. Streets were vacant, and grocery store shelves bare. But hospitals and healthcare workers were stretched to the brink treating patients succumbing to the effects of the virus while fearing for their own family’s safety and well-being. In the U.S., to date, 30 million people have been infected with COVID-19, and over five hundred thousand have died.

Approval of Vaccines Bring Hope and Skepticism

The turning point came in December 2020 when the Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were approved by the CDC for emergency use and started distribution. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine recently came online, also approved for emergency use n the U.S.

While the COVID-19 vaccines brought hope to many, the speed at which they were developed caused skepticism of the vaccines’ efficacy and safety, especially in minority communities, although the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted them.

To better understand Americans’ sentiment toward vaccines, ThinkNow conducted a nationwide online survey of adults ages 18-64. The study gauges public perception about vaccines, particularly the COVID-19 vaccine. It also measures Americans’ willingness to get the vaccine when made available to them. The findings are eye-opening:

Fear of Vaccine Safety Highest Among African Americans

Most adults believe that vaccines, in general, are at least “somewhat safe.” This sentiment increases with age. Among minorities, however, there is a clear divide. African Americans are least likely to say vaccines as safe, while Asian Americans are most likely to consider them safe.

African Americans’ apprehension is not unfounded. The Tuskegee study on Black men was conducted from 1932 to 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and resulted in many deaths or severe health issues. Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells were used for medical research without her or her family’s knowledge. There is an obvious distrust of the government within this community based on experience, which has hindered vaccination efforts.

Vaccination Important To Most Americans

Most adults (73%) believe it’s “very” or “somewhat” important that people get the COVID-19 vaccine. Similarly, 7 out of 10 Americans surveyed have either received the vaccine or are likely to get it.

Of those not eager to receive the vaccine, the amount of testing done on the vaccine and fear of side effects are the primary barriers. Ironically, while men place the most importance on getting the vaccine, they are about twice as likely as women to believe the vaccine will not work. Distrust of the government is present across most cohorts, especially within the Black community. But Asian Americans, the most likely to consider vaccines safe, express the highest level of trust in the government.

Despite the uncertainty, about half of adults would like to get the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them. FDA approval, however, has the most significant influence on survey respondents’ decision to get the vaccine, followed closely by a doctor’s recommendation and CDC approval.  

Looking Ahead

As production of COVID-19 vaccines ramp up and more Americans become eligible to be vaccinated, the number of COVID cases is expected to decline. However, it will be essential that government agencies restore credibility within the Black community and as well as improve access among Latino communities to increase vaccination rates and save lives.