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Fears, misinformation still fueling vaccine hesitancy in Illinois, new data shows

Posted at Chicago Sun Times

As a 52-year-old widower from Galewood who works outside, John doesn’t think he’s high risk for getting COVID-19. And with COVID vaccines only getting approval for emergency use by the FDA less than six months ago, John doesn’t believe there has been enough time to determine if there will be long-term health impacts from getting a shot.

“I think I can avoid the virus and I think my health factors indicate I would survive COVID,” said John, a landscaper who asked that his name not be used.

He’s not going to get the vaccine — at least not yet. “I would like to wait until there is more data,” he said.

Fears of side effects from the shots remain the top reason Illinois residents reject the shots, new statewide polling data shows. That, as well as persistent worries the entire process to develop the vaccine was rushed — a concern John also shares — could have contributed to the slowdown in vaccinations that has hit the state in recent weeks, the data shows.

But the data released earlier this week shows there is some progress, as only 38 percent of residents now worry about side effects, down from 53% in December. The number of Illinoisans who say they will never get a shot has dropped to 9.3 percent — a slight uptick from last month but down from 13.7 percent in the fall.

How likely are you to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Monthly surveys of Illinois residents shows how vaccine uptake and hesitancy has changed in Illinois between November and April. Over the course of the six monthly survey periods, the sample size ranged from 908-1,416 respondents with an error range of 2.6% to 3.25%. ~NRC Health

And when compared to neighboring states in the Midwest, the data shows, Illinois now has fewer respondents who said they would never get a COVID-19 vaccine than Indiana (15.2%), Missouri (13.9 %), Iowa (11.7 %) and Michigan and Wisconsin (11.1 %).

The Illinois data comes from a monthly health survey of roughly 1,000 consumers by the National Research Corp. (NRC Health). It highlights statewide vaccine-related concerns among residents every month between October and April.

In addition to side effects, an analysis of the data by the Documenting COVID-19 project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation shows, many concerns linger as the vaccine rollout now enters a critical period toward reaching herd immunity.

About 22.2% of respondents continued to express the concern the vaccine’s development was rushed last month. Among Illinois Hispanics, the number who still think it was developed too quickly is five percentage points higher than the general public.

“We’re talking to people and they say things like, ‘I’m nervous about it, but I know I need to do it,’” said Shelly Ruzicka, spokeswoman for Arise Chicago, a faith-based nonprofit that advocates for workers’ rights, including for many Latino and Polish immigrants. She said fears have been expressed by residents and staff members alike even as the group has brought in health professionals for virtual Q&A sessions and provided vaccine information in multiple languages.

What concerns do you have about the COVID-19 vaccination?

Some of the reason why Illinois residents are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. ~NRC Health

Other concerns have resulted from differences in political beliefs or even misinformation that has spread rapidly online and elsewhere.

Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, a professor of infectious diseases at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and the medical adviser in downstate Sangamon County, said the concerns have contributed to a slowdown in vaccinations despite early progress in Springfield.

“We had come to a certain point, and that’s it, there was no movement after that,” she said. About half of the county and state is now fully vaccinated, although experts say as many as 70-90 percent need to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

“There were a lot of fears of ‘the chip,’ or they’re being tracked,” Sundareshan said of false claims the vaccine contained microchips. “A lot of young women wanting to get pregnant, and in that age group, they would worry about infertility as a result of this vaccine.” Experts say there is no evidence vaccines cause infertility.

Said Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde: “There are the political barriers, which I don’t remember ever having to face before. People believe for some reason that it’s a government conspiracy.”

Not to mention that between about 3-4 percent of people, dating back each month to November, have said they don’t believe COVID is even real.

But to be sure, small numbers of people also list more practical reasons like not having time or a car ride as reasons they haven’t gotten a shot.

More intensive community outreach is critical to countering vaccine hesitancy, said Dr. William Parker, an assistant professor of pulmonary critical care medicine who is assistant director for the University of Chicago MacLean Center for Medical Ethics. Many South Side neighborhoods not far from the university still have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the city.

“We need some convincing to remove as many barriers as possible,” Parker said.