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Only Republican 'Elites' Will Convince Some Vaccine Resisters to Get the Shot: Study

By Diane Moy and Dennis Thompson HealthDay Reporters

WEDNESDAY, July 28, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Republicans who say they won't get the COVID-19 vaccine are more likely to reconsider their stance if high-profile Republicans urge them to take the jab, a new study finds.

Similar vaccination pleas from Democratic sources may actually harden their resistance, researchers found.

Unvaccinated Republicans exposed to an endorsement by Republican elites like former President Donald Trump were 7% more likely to change their minds about the vaccine. On the other hand, a similar message from President Joe Biden caused Republicans' opposition to increase by as much as 10%.

"The most significant takeaway to my mind is that Republican leaders could really do a lot in this space if they were so inclined. A pro-vaccination campaign led by Republicans would be terrific," senior researcher Robb Willer, a professor of organizational behavior with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said in an interview with his college's media office.

For example, Nashville-based conservative radio host Phil Valentine had been scoffing on-air at the need for COVID vaccination -- until he revealed he caught the virus on July 11 and became hospitalized in critical condition. He has since issued a statement urging his listeners to get the vaccine.

"Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an 'anti-vaxer' he regrets not being more vehemently 'pro-vaccine,' and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon," the New York Times reported Valentine's radio station said.

For the new study, Willer and colleagues conducted an experiment involving nearly 1,500 Republicans, to test what might sway their opinions toward the COVID vaccine.

"Republicans are the biggest barrier to containing the virus in the U.S., and that's bad for everybody," Willer said. "Republicans are 32% of the population, and 44% of them are now saying no to vaccination. That means that an ideological group representing 14% of the American population doesn't want to get vaccinated."

Participants were put into one of three different groups:

  • One group watched a video of Trump endorsing vaccination, and read a short essay quoting prominent Republicans who promote getting the shot.
  • Another group watched a video of Biden encouraging vaccination and read a similar essay quoting Democrats.
  • The third group watched a video and read an essay about a completely unrelated topic -- neckties.

"We didn't make anything up," Willer noted. "We worked entirely with existing endorsements."

Results showed that Republicans exposed to the Democrats' messaging wound up expressing more negative attitudes toward the vaccine than did those who listened to fellow Republicans or received an unrelated message about neckties.

The findings were published July 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, expressed some skepticism regarding the experiment, saying "it is very difficult to understand how this study would translate into the real world.

"However, it can only help if Republican politicians endorse the vaccine," Adalja continued. "Amongst the litany of failures of the Trump administration's pandemic response, the one success was Operation Warp Speed and the vaccine. This should be reason for his supporters to get vaccinated as he was."

Other prior studies suggest that the most helpful pro-vaccine advice can't be delivered by either politicians or public health officials.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nothing sways a vaccine-hesitant person more than a conversation with a family member, friend or their own doctor. Folks who changed their mind and got the shot said most often that their relatives or their doctor convinced them.

"Overall, I think it is likely that people are more motivated by trusted individuals that they know such as their primary care physician and community leaders, rather than people on television when it comes to decisions like this," Adalja said.

More information

The Kaiser Family Foundation has more about vaccine hesitancy.

SOURCES: Robb Willer, PhD, professor, organizational behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford, Calif.; Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 26, 2021

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