A US Public Health Challenge: Getting More Americans Vaccinated — and Quickly

August 9, 2021

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As of this weekend, about 40% of eligible Americans ages 12 and up were unvaccinated for COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. USC researchers explain who is unvaccinated, why and the challenges that must be overcome to rein in COVID.

Editors: This is the second of two releases featuring experts on COVID-19 and the delta variant. 

Contact: Emily Gersema, gersema@usc.edu or (213) 712-3168 and Leigh Hopper, lhopper@usc.edu or (310) 308-0405


Inequitable access and the spread of misinformation hinder vaccination for Black Americans

“Unequal access to the vaccine can potentially explain vaccine behaviors among some African Americans and can send a signal that our lives are not as important as the lives of others. For example, pharmacy deserts are more prevalent in predominately Black neighborhoods than in white ones. And because African Americans have less access to care and are more likely than whites to rely on public transportation, getting access to a COVID vaccine outside of their neighborhood can increase their perceived risk of exposure to the virus, and increase vaccine hesitancy or resistance.

“Also, less access to credible information about COVID can influence African Americans’ attitudes about the vaccine. We know that African Americans are more frequent users of certain social media platforms, like Instagram, than whites, and are more likely to trust social media as a source of information for COVID-related news.”

Karen Lincoln is an associate professor and senior scientist at the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She also founded Advocates for African American Elders at USC.

Contact: klincoln@usc.edu


When beliefs are challenged, the brain reacts with disgust

“Though we haven’t studied anti-vaccination beliefs specifically, we have studied the basic psychological processes that are probably at play here. People’s positions on issues like this can become tied to their social identities and the groups that they affiliate with. It may become more reflective of a personal value or a personal identity as ‘I am not someone who would get those vaccines.’ There is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there about the vaccines. With social media, misinformation spreads very very easily and widely right now, and misinformation can be difficult to correct once it is accepted.

“Extrapolating from our earlier work on beliefs, one of the things that is likely to happen is the activation of brain systems that support emotion and feeling. The more defensive we feel and the more emotion that we feel, the more likely we are to feel defensive and challenged. What we feel when encountering challenges to our deeply held beliefs may be related to disgust and just feeling negatively in general. It is a rejection impulse. It’s similar to how we respond to something lik

e spoiled food – it’s disgusting and you just want to get it out of your body.”

Jonas Kaplan is a cognitive neuroscientist and associate professor of research at USC Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute. He has led brain scan studies exploring what networks are active in the brain when religious or political beliefs are challenged.

Contact: jtkaplan@usc.edu and on Twitter @Jonas_Kaplan


One way to persuade the reluctant-to-vaccinate and science skeptics: lotteries

“While the Ohio Vax-a-Million lottery was not a true experiment, it is likely that lotteries are helping persuade some peopleAnd at this point in the pandemic, there is need for creative incentives and thoughtful messaging.

“Some vaccine-hesitant individuals are worried about the small chance of a bad outcome. We call this ‘overweighting of small probabilities.’ For these individuals, why not focus their attention on the small probability of a good outcome — like winning the lottery? Then, hopefully, vaccines will prevail for these folks.”

Jason Docto

r holds the Norman Topping Chair in Medicine and Public Policy, is an associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, and co-directs the Behavioral Sciences Program at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. He is an expert on “nudges.”

Contact: jdoctor@usc.edu

‘Breakthrough’ cases remain rare; most COVID delta variant patients are unvaccinated adults

“Unfortunately, many of those who remain unvaccinated in Los Angeles tend to be Latinos and African Americans under 39 years of age. The majority

of individuals hospitalized today with the delta variant have not been vaccinated. Much younger unvaccinated people are ending up hospitalized.

“We can avoid needless pain and terrible suffering among our most vulnerable by convincing unvaccinated family members and friends to do so. The possible side effects from the vaccine or potential days lost from work are not comparable to ending up in a hospital and possibly dying from COVID. The greatest protection in a family is for everyone to be vaccinated. Make sure all your family members are vaccinated today.”

Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, professor of preventive medicine, is the associate dean for community initiatives at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the associate director for community engagement at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and the director of the Center for Health Equity in the Americas.

Contact: Baezcond@usc.edu

How to persuade someone to believe the science

USC Professor of Education and Psychology Gale Sinatra has co-authored a book, “Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It,” with Middlebury College Professor Emerita Barbara K. Hofer.

They have shared successful ways to persuade science skeptics to believe science. In a recent piece for The Conversation, they offered tips:

  • Listen and connect: “We have found it effective to listen to others’ concerns and try to find common ground. Someone you connect with is more persuasive than those with whom you share less in common. When one identity is blocking acceptance of the science, leverage a second identity to make a connection.”
  • Fact check! Pause before sharing articles, social posts: “Ask yourself if the information really is true and if so, how do you know?”
  • The science can change: “Recognize that other people (or possibly even you) may be operating with misguided beliefs about science. You can help them adopt what philosopher of science Lee McIntyre calls a scientific attitude, an openness to seeking new evidence and a willingness to change one’s mind.”

Gale Sinatra is the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education and Psychology at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, where she directs the Motivated Change Research Lab.

Contact: gsinatra@usc.edu

Anti-science beliefs and race are linked to lower vaccination rates

Computer scientists and engineers at the USC Information Sciences Institute and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have analyzed tweets to better understand who is likely unvaccinated.

Led by USC Viterbi Associate Professor Kristina Lerman, the study last month in Future Internet showed political leanings and race were factors:“Political partisanship — specifically, the share of Trump voters — was strongly associated with the county’s share of anti-science [Twitter] users, but race and psychological factors were also found to be important,” the collaborators wrote.“Specifically, places with a larger share of non-white population had more anti-science users, and places outside of large metro centers where users expressed anger … were associated with more anti-science users. We also found that anti-science attitudes in large metropolitan areas are associated with significantly lower COVID-19 vaccination rates.”Contact Kristina Lerman via Amy Blumenthal at amyblume@usc.edu or (917) 710-1897