Republicans in the United States became less accepting of a potential COVID-19 vaccine as the pandemic unfolded, according to new research published in PLOS One. The findings add to a growing body of research that indicates partisan attitudes are contributing to vaccine hesitancy.
“In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we already understood that large-scale vaccination efforts would be critical to stemming the spread and bringing about a return to pre-pandemic life,” said study author Ariel Fridman, a PhD candidate at UC San Diego.
“And given the worrying news about vaccine skepticism that preceded COVID-19, we decided to measure how it would evolve over the course of the pandemic, starting at a relatively early stage of the pandemic in the U.S. (March 2020).”
“When we started, we actually predicted that vaccine hesitancy would decrease, since other research has documented that when the risk of a threat is heightened, people become more favorable toward interventions that mitigate the threat. However, this was the opposite of what we found during our study period,” Fridman explained.
The researchers recruited 1,018 U.S. participants using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and asked them to complete surveys in March, April, May, June, July, and August of 2020. The surveys assessed their intention to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, intention to get an influenza vaccine, political affiliation, perceptions of COVID-19 threat, and trust in various institutions, among other factors.
Fridman and his colleagues found that intentions to get the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine declined over time. This trend was mostly driven by participants who identified as Republican. Among Democrats, on the other hand, intentions to get the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine remained steady over time.
“While we find that vaccine hesitancy increased overall, the decrease was primarily driven by Republicans,” Fridman told PsyPost. “In fact, political party affiliation explained the trend in vaccine hesitancy better than any other demographic variable we collected, and we suspect that this stems from differences in perceptions of COVID-19 threat across the political spectrum. This underscores how media and messaging about the severity of threats can have real-world impacts that are highly consequential to health behavior.”
Among Republicans in the study, Fox News was the most popular news source, followed by Facebook or Instagram. Among Democrats, CNN was the most popular news source, with The New York Times coming in second place. Previous research has found that consumption of conservative media is linked to COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs.
“Another trend highlighted by our data shows that, similar to vaccine attitudes, Republicans’ trust in the media also decreased significantly more during our study than Democrats,” Fridman said. “While these patterns may be related, future work can further examine the role of trust in the media on vaccine attitudes.”
The study ended in August, but a vaccine for the novel coronavirus was not approved in the United States until December 2020. “Future work may look at how vaccine attitudes evolved over the course of the vaccine rollout, which occurred after our data collection period,” Fridman noted.
The study, “COVID-19 and vaccine hesitancy: A longitudinal study“, was authored by Ariel Fridman, Rachel Gershon, and Ayelet Gneezy.