Two of Five Virginians Say Nix to COVID-19 Vaccine

by James A. Bacon

Don’t count on a vaccine to end the COVID-19 epidemic — not in Virginia anyway. Four out of 10 Virginians say they are likely to not get a vaccine, even if approved by the Food and Drug Administration and made available for free. Only 58% say they are “somewhat” or “very” likely to do so, according to a poll released yesterday by the Virginia Commonwealth University school of government.

Last month State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said that he planned to mandate a COVID-19 immunization once it was safely released to the public. Focused on “accessibility, affordability and fair distribution” of a vaccine, Governor Ralph Northam said he was not planning a mandate at that time. As it turns out, two thirds of those responding to the VCU poll said they oppose requiring everyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

As I have blogged previously, there are legitimate questions to ask about the efficacy of any vaccine. No vaccine is 100% effective. Various experts have opined that a vaccine likely to meet FDA approval would immunize between 75% and 90% of people exposed to the coronavirus. People have to balance the potential protection against the risks of side effects such as fever, fatigue and headaches.

In the poll, 63% of Independents and 59% of Democrats said they were very or somewhat likely to get the vaccine, while only 49% of Republicans saying they were. It will be fascinating to see if those numbers flip as the vaccine issue becomes polarized along partisan lines, as appears to be happening.

President Trump has trumpeted the release of the vaccine, hopefully before the end of the year, as a game changer in the battle against the virus. Democrats have been begun expressing skepticism regarding the availability of a vaccine — it won’t come out until 2021 at the earliest — and some have questioned the efficacy of any product hurried through the regulatory process under the auspices of the Trump administration.

What effect would a vaccine have on the virus epidemic? Let us assume for purposes of argument that the vaccine is at least as effective as the most effective flu vaccines, about 60%. And let’s assume that only 60% of Virginians take the vaccine. The means the vaccine would confer resistance or immunity to 36% of the population. That would slow the spread of the virus, but it fall short of conferring herd immunity that would end the epidemic.

A slower spreading virus would be a welcome development. But we live in a society in which large groups of people are unwilling to tolerate any visible risk (even as they blithely ignore less visible risks). Would a 60%-effective vaccine be sufficient to coax teachers and students back into schools, to reopen college classes, and relax the restrictions on restaurants, hotels, airlines, and other businesses?

Who knows? The only certainty these days is that uncertainty prevails.