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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan’s plan to get more Republicans to take COVID vaccine

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Recent polling shows that Republicans and other conservatives are far less likely to seek a vaccine for COVID-19. (Lester Graham / Shutterstock)

Related: Vaccine mandates increase among Michigan employers. What you need to know.

A recent Michigan poll was the latest red flag: Republicans and backers of former President Trump appear to be the biggest roadblock to getting Michigan to herd immunity from COVID-19.

Public service announcements by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer aren’t likely to change minds. Ditto for the PSA’s by former presidents, whether or not Trump joined in the effort. 

State and local health officials say the best path for getting vaccine refusers to yes is through the counsel of close, trusted people in their lives, such as pastors, family doctors, word of mouth from friends who received a vaccine, along with straightforward education campaigns.

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“Education is critical in all forms,” Teresa Branson, deputy health administrator at the Kent County Health Department, told Bridge Michigan.

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“Some people are hesitant. They are skeptical. These are all legitimate concerns,” she said. “We need to bring more information to these people.”

Branson said the department has engaged a broad spectrum of area faith leaders to spread the word about the need to be vaccinated. That partnership ranges from Black-majority Grand Rapids churches to suburban churches that likely include significant numbers of conservative or Republican parishioners.

“Many of those (conservative) individuals are people of faith and they will listen to people in that community of faith,” she said.

Lansing GOP political consultant Steve Mitchell said he suspects some hard-core conservatives or Trump backers will never budge about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Some of them are anti-regulatory people. Some are anti-vaxxers,” said Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell Research & Communications.

“And there’s nothing more regulatory than sticking a needle in your arm and putting some sort of medication in it,” said Mitchell, who said he got vaccinated himself and posted about it on Facebook to mostly positive reactions.

Mitchell said he believes more conservatives and Trump supporters will come around in the next few weeks — not necessarily due to some public health campaign but because so many people they know have received vaccines without incident. 

“I think as more people get shots and they don’t grow a third ear, more people are going to say, ‘It’s safe and I will get the vaccine,’” he said. “I think time will heal a lot of this issue.”

Roughly one-in-four Michigan adults 18 and over said they were unlikely did not plan to be vaccinated for the coronavirus, according to a February U.S. Census survey — a percentage equal to nearly 2 million residents. (Though that included only 9 percent who said they “definitely” wouldn’t take the vaccine.) And it may be that a good portion of those are Trump supporters, as the March 2 poll by Lansing polling firm EPIC-MRA found that 50 percent of Trump loyalists said they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Experts say widespread resistance could be a critical barrier to reaching “herd immunity” from the virus, calculated at anywhere from 70 percent to 85 percent of the population that would need to be immune from COVID (through vaccination or already having the virus) to reduce its spread. 

Public health officials are closely looking for clues on the best way to motivate skeptics to get a shot. 

According to a focus group conducted by longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz, a group of 19 adults who voted for President Trump and did not intend to be vaccinated voiced a range of fears about COVID vaccines, calling them “rushed,” “experimental” and “scary,” a likely reference to the unprecedented pace of developing COVID vaccines, three of which are approved for emergency use in the U.S., and have been broadly accepted by the medical community as safe and effective.  

The people in the focus group were also clear that they didn’t want to hear from, and were unlikely to be persuaded by, politicians or celebrities on why they should receive a vaccine. 

“We want to be educated, not indoctrinated,” one participant said.

Shown the video that featured an endorsement of the vaccines by all living U.S. ex-presidents except Donald Trump, participants were underwhelmed.

"It was kind of like propaganda, actually," a participant said.

Asked if they would be more influenced by a word from Trump directly or their own doctor about getting a vaccine, all 19 said their doctor.

That’s no surprise to Ingham County Health Department health officer Linda Vail, who said people often change their mind about vaccination after talking it over with their doctor or other health care provider. That personal relationship can make all the difference.

“Oftentimes people trust their provider, as they should,” she said. “We see people go from, ‘No, I’m not getting a vaccine,’ to, ‘I will get a vaccine.’ when they have that conversation with a trusted provider.”

Vail said medical leaders at Lansing hospitals are reaching out to their networks of providers to further encourage conversations with their patients about COVID-19 vaccination.

Vail sees no one path to reaching conservatives — or any other group, including African American or Hispanic residents — who may be vaccine reluctant.

“You just have to deal with all the different reasons why people say they will or will not get vaccinated. When you are talking about people’s ideology, I don’t know how you change ideology.”

But Vail  said challenging someone’s belief on vaccines “is absolutely the wrong thing to do. It is absolutely the right thing to do to meet people where they are and not to vaccine shame, because that will not accomplish anything. Confrontation will not work.”

To date, Michigan has administered at least one dose of a vaccine to about 2.4 million people, about 24 percent of the state’s overall population. As the pace of vaccinations quickens, the state announced that all those age 16 and over will be eligible for vaccines beginning April 5.

Federal officials have said they expect to produce enough vaccines for every adult American by the end of May.

In the meantime, state health officials are pushing multi-pronged efforts to boost vaccination among doubters, including TV spots that highlight the safety and effectiveness of the approved vaccines.

“The State’s COVID-19 messaging is focused on combating the misinformation surrounding the pandemic as a whole, with special attention on the vaccine hesitant population,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Lynn Sutfin.

Sutfin said the state is also seeking to improve access to vaccines by vulnerable groups that include Black and Hispanic residents. That includes a project that targets people age 60 and over and who score high on the federal Social Vulnerability Index or who have seen higher death rates related to COVID-19. MDHHS is also posting Facebook video conversations with vulnerable adults who overcame early skepticism and decided to get a vaccine.

MDHHS is also hosting a series of virtual community town halls, live streamed through Facebook, to answer lingering questions about vaccine safety and effectiveness. Its next town hall, set for Friday, is aimed at older adults who have yet to be vaccinated.

Sutfin said MDHHS expects to expand mobile vaccinations as well, adding “There is a lot going on and we remain flexible based on what data and feedback are telling us.”

In Kent County, health official Branson said she also remains hopeful that reluctant residents will change their minds as those around them get vaccinated or encouraged by people they trust. 

“Even then,” she said, “we know we won’t reach all.”

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