Age may rival politics in COVID-19 vaccine debate

New research from the University of Georgia suggests age and risk perception may have as much of an effect on COVID-19 vaccine acceptance as party affiliation.

“There’s been a lot of attention to political ideology as a barrier to COVID-19 vaccination acceptance,” said Glen Nowak, corresponding author of the study and professor in Grady College. “What we found in our survey was that’s not so much true as people get older. Current CDC coverage data affirms this. People who are 65 and older are almost universally vaccinated, particularly as you start getting to 75 and older.”

The nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 people examined how demographic characteristics—such as age and sex, political ideology and news source preference—related to views on COVID-19 and vaccine intent.

Respondents who were age 50 or older considered themselves more at risk for severe illness from the coronavirus. And they were more concerned that catching the virus would negatively impact their daily lives.

Younger Americans were less likely to consider themselves at risk of severe illness. They’re also less likely to worry about contracting the virus and less likely to keep themselves up to date on the latest COVID-related news.

“Looking at 18- to 29-year-olds, it’s not surprising that they are the group with the lowest overall COVID vaccination rates because they’re not a group that is suffering serious illness and death from COVID,” said Nowak, who also serves as co-director of UGA’s Center for Health and Risk Communication. “Are there instances of that? Absolutely. But it’s relatively rare. I think many people in that age group understand that.”

Glen Nowak talks with WSET about COVID-19 vaccination research findings.

More COVID-19 information isn’t always better 

Published in the International Journal of Strategic Communication, the study found that political affiliation and where participants got their news were the most consistent predictors of how an individual felt about their COVID-19 risk level and their vaccine intent.

Liberals in the study viewed the virus as a bigger threat to their daily lives than conservatives. They worried about becoming ill, believed symptoms would be severe and expressed concern that they could pass the disease to others. They were also more likely to accept the vaccine and trust authority figures like the CDC and FDA.

Both liberals and moderates believed medical care and treatment would be more difficult to access than conservatives.

Surprisingly, people who said they get their COVID-19 news from a variety of sources, both conservative and liberal, were more likely to be vaccine hesitant than those who stuck to partisan news sources.

“If you had asked us before we this study, we would have said pretty confidently that people who were looking at a wide array of information would be much more likely to be vaccinated and have much more confidence in the vaccine,” Nowak said. “What this suggested was the opposite in many instances. Many people who tried or said that they looked at a broad spectrum of information sources came away less confident and more uncertain about the vaccine and its value.”

Public health should tailor messages to the right audiences 

The differences between participants on the right, left or middle highlight the need to tailor COVID-19 messaging to different populations, Nowak said.

Those who aren’t in a high-risk category, like young adults, quickly realize that they’re unlikely to get really sick from the coronavirus and largely tune out public health education efforts.

Communications to these populations should focus on more realistic situations for them, Nowak said. For example, emphasize that there aren’t great treatments available to treat patients if they are one of the few who do need hospitalization.

“This data shows you can’t assume interest and attention from younger people and those who are less affected by COVID-19,” Nowak said. “It’s a good reminder that we can’t just blast, ‘Everybody should be afraid of getting severe COVID.’ That’s not an effective communication strategy.”

This study was co-authored by Michael Cacciatore, an associate professor in the Grady College and co-director of the Center for Health and Risk Communications.


Editor’s Note: This release was originally posted on the UGA News website.

 

Article on COVID-19 vaccination acceptance co-authored by Glen Nowak published in New England Journal of Medicine

Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia, co-authored a Perspective article addressing one of the most pressing topics facing the United States: achieving high acceptance of a vaccine for COVID-19.

The article, “When Will We Have a Vaccine? — Understanding Questions and Answers about Covid-19 Vaccination,” was published Sept. 8 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It is co-authored by Barry R. Bloom of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Walter Orenstein of the Emory Vaccine Center at Emory University School of Medicine.

The perspective calls attention to the activities and outcomes that need to be achieved before a COVID-19 vaccine is recommended and available for use in the United States. It notes that many people, including healthcare providers and journalists, are asking “When will we have a vaccine to protect us against COVID-19?” Nowak and his co-authors point out those who ask that question really are asking three questions:

  1. When will the public be able to have confidence that available COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective?
  2. When will a COVID-19 vaccine be available to the general public?
  3. When will COVID-19 vaccination rates be high enough that society can return to a pre-pandemic world?

“Our perspective article provides advice on what is needed to achieve high confidence in COVID-19 vaccines,” said Nowak, a professor at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“In the U.S., billions of dollars have been invested in developing COVID-19 vaccines, including five that are currently being tested with people. However, it is not enough to have a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Most people need to be willing to be vaccinated. To achieve that, we need visible COVID-19 vaccine education efforts that involve transparency, engagement and dialogue.”

Nowak noted that investments and efforts in healthcare provider and public education about a new vaccine usually do not happen until there is a vaccination recommendation. Those efforts typically receive relatively little government funding and often only focus on healthcare providers.

“Often times, it is assumed by many experts that new vaccines will speak for themselves. That is, their benefits are so obvious and important people will want to get vaccinated,” Nowak said.  “What usually happens, though, is healthcare providers and the people who should receive the new vaccine have many questions and concerns. They want to know how safety was determined and how well the vaccine will protect them.”

The NEJM perspective article is intended to provide guidance to federal and state government agencies and health officials who are hoping new COVID-19 vaccines will be widely accepted by the public. This includes the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the Federal Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nowak said a broader, more in-depth approach needs to be taken starting now when it comes to communicating and educating people about the COVID-19 vaccines. Officials need to be transparent and communicate often about how vaccines are being evaluated for safety and effectiveness as well as how it was determined which groups of people should receive the first available doses. There also need to be steps taken now that will help get as much acceptance as possible when the vaccine is ready, especially for those who are first in line to get it. This can be done through trusted healthcare professionals and user-friendly materials that provide safety and effectiveness information.

“As much as we all want the COVID-19 pandemic to end, we can’t assume fast and widespread  acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines,” Nowak said. “We need to build trust and confidence in how these vaccines were developed and tested if we expect to achieve high acceptance.”

Nowak and Orenstein worked together at the CDC when Nowak was the director of communications for the National Immunization Program and Orenstein directed the program. Currently, Nowak serves on the National Vaccine Advisory Committee’s sub-committee on vaccine confidence. He is also working on research focusing on COVID-19 vaccine acceptance.

Read “When Will We Have a Vaccine?” here.