The coronavirus vaccine skeptics who changed their minds

Local 28 Sheet Metal Worker Demetrius Buttelman gestures after being inoculated with the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine during a news conference, at the pop up vaccination site at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, U.S., April 14, 2021. Mary Altaffer/Pool via REUTERS
Dan Diamond
·10 min read

Kim Simmons, a 61-year-old small-business owner in Illinois, vividly remembers the moment she went from vaccine skeptic to vaccine-ready: watching a Johns Hopkins University doctor on C-SPAN make the case for why the shots are safe.

For Lauren Bergner, a 39-year-old homemaker in New Jersey, it was when she realized it would make it easier for her family to attend New York Yankees games, after the team announced fans would need to show proof of a negative coronavirus test or that they had been vaccinated.

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And for Elizabeth Greenaway, a 34-year-old communications consultant in Pennsylvania, it was the sudden fear that if she got sick, she wasn't sure who would take care of her 2-year-old daughter, who has a rare health condition.

"Thinking about herd immunity, thinking about my daughter, thinking about all of that, I just realized - it's about being a part of something bigger than yourself," said Greenaway, who's had to cut back on work to care for her daughter.

Simmons, Bergner and Greenaway are among the growing number of vaccine skeptics turned vaccinated Americans, a sign of hope amid the slowing pace of vaccinations nationwide. Almost half of all adults have yet to receive a first shot although they are now eligible, and the rolling rate of new shots has dropped to its lowest level since mid-March.

The emergence of these mind-changers suggests that at least some vaccine-wary Americans are willing to reconsider when their concerns are addressed by those they regard as credible.

Their conversions - along with those of 16 other former skeptics who joined a focus group last week - have drawn intense interest from White House officials and public health experts, hoping to re-create those moments for the tens of millions of Americans who remain in the "no" camp. Experts fear that failing to achieve high levels of immunity could prolong the pandemic in the United States, particularly if unvaccinated people continue to be infected and the virus continues to mutate as it spreads.

"I think we should all look at India, and we should not be so arrogant as to believe that it could not happen here," said Brian Castrucci, head of the de Beaumont Foundation, the public health organization that helped convene last week's focus group and several prior sessions, pointing to that country's surging outbreak.

Lessons from the focus groups and accompanying polling also informed a new series of public service announcements produced by the de Beaumont Foundation and featuring Republican doctors in Congress, which are set to be released Monday. While some vaccine skeptics have panned pitches from politicians - including high-profile PSAs starring former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton - the GOP lawmakers say they believe their appeals will resonate with a conservative base that's disproportionately resistant. About a quarter of adults say they're not planning to get vaccinated, including about 40% of people who lean Republican, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll released last week.

"What separates us from the former presidents is we're all physicians and health care providers," said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, head of the GOP Doctors Caucus, whose members appear in the ads. "And so we're doing the ads in white coats, because that's what people trust."

Alice Chen, a senior adviser for the vaccine equity advocacy organization Made to Save, credited the wave of efforts trying to win over holdouts, saying the cumulative effects laid the ground for breakthroughs.

"The ads on TV, reading up on the CDC site, talking to your buddy who's a nurse - I think it's going to be a combination of all these things that are going to help, particularly for the people who are the most hesitant," Chen said.

An internal medicine doctor who's been helping to give shots at a Florida clinic, Chen said she's administered doses to self-confessed former skeptics, too.

"Almost all of them changed their mind because somebody they love told them to, because they saw people around them getting vaccinated," Chen said. "I think that piece is so much more important than I think I even realized, going into this."

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Wenstrup, Chen, and other politicians and public health leaders have studied people's responses in Zoom focus groups convened by Frank Luntz, the longtime GOP pollster, to understand why some Americans are hesitant to get vaccinated and which messages will reach them. Attendees of the groups were identified by their first name and state of residence, although many shared additional details about their political beliefs, jobs and other biographical information.

The series has run long enough that four Trump voters who joined Luntz's first focus group in March, saying they weren't planning to get vaccinated, rejoined a session on Thursday to talk about their change of heart. All credited Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Obama administration, for helping boost their understanding of the shots.

The moment of conversion was "when I did the last focus group with you, and you had the doctor from the CDC on," said a woman identified as Marie from New York. "He explained it much better than [Dr. Anthony] Fauci, or any of them ever did."

Other participants detailed more moments that changed their minds, as members of the White House's coronavirus response team and public health experts silently watched.

For instance, a man identified as Anderson from New York praised a March 19 segment from WNYC public radio host Brian Lehrer that explored the possible long-term effects of contracting the coronavirus.

"Two folks who were long-haul symptom holders of covid-19 got on the show and said, as soon as they got the shot, the symptoms faded away. That's when I was convinced to go take my shot," Anderson said.

Participants also shared their realization that a vaccine would allow them to travel, go back to work and resume other aspects of pre-pandemic life, particularly if the shots were encouraged or required. They further praised physicians and other local health workers, who they said had helped calm their nerves.

"My doctor prescribes everything, but the pharmacist is the one who will take the time to let me know about the side effects," said a woman named Gail from D.C., who said she was "so freaked out" about getting the coronavirus vaccine that she scheduled multiple appointments, with different brands of shots, to give herself more options. Gail said she ultimately got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Simmons, a Democrat, told The Post that she had been haunted by a 2007 horror movie, "I Am Legend," which starred actor Will Smith. That film depicts a botched cancer cure that kills most people and transforms the survivors into monsters - and Simmons said the image ran through her head last year as she heard about the rapid development of the coronavirus vaccines.

"I love that movie, for all kinds of reasons. But that was kind of scary. Don't want to be a zombie," Simmons said.

As a regular C-SPAN viewer, Simmons said that she was reassured only after hearing a Johns Hopkins University expert - epidemiologist Chris Beyrer - talk about the monitoring of tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials and long-term safety data. (Beyrer was responding to a caller who suggested that administering an untested vaccine to millions of people seemed ripped from the plot of a horror movie.) "At that point, I felt that it was pretty safe. I believed him," Simmons said. She received her first Moderna vaccine dose in March.

Greenaway, a Republican, said she had been impressed by the doctors who cared for her daughter at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, so when she saw Paul Offit, a CHOP pediatrician, appear on national TV to tout the vaccines, she was primed to listen.

"His face was familiar to me," said Greenaway. "I had seen him in research I had done before we went to CHOP. And I felt like I really trusted him." Greenaway said that she prayed extensively before signing up to get her two doses of the Pfizer vaccine in April.

Even as some skeptics change their minds, other have signaled they're increasingly dug in, including a focus group with Trump voters last month who weren't swayed by Frieden and GOP politicians. In a separate focus group with Luntz last week, a panel of 23 younger, politically diverse voters raised their own concerns about the vaccine, arguing they didn't feel it was necessary because they are at lower risk of serious complications. Some young Black adults said they were less worried about the virus and more worried about the risk of police brutality.

"For me, I feel as if Black people have a higher chance of being killed by the police than by covid at this point," said a woman identified as Camille in Florida.

Luntz's efforts to boost vaccine uptake drew fire Friday from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said that Luntz should disclose that he's done work for vaccine manufacturer Pfizer. Luntz said that Pfizer paid him to craft messaging campaigns but that his work ended in 2007. Progressives have also criticized the pollster's involvement and mocked some of the participants online, claiming that trying to win over vaccine-hesitant Republicans is a lost cause.

Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser on the White House's coronavirus response, countered that the Biden administration welcomed efforts to share "reliable information" and listen to people's concerns.

"There's no reason to shame anybody. And there's no evidence that shaming anybody ever accomplished anything," Slavitt said, adding that White House officials were working to understand the specific reasons many Americans are still making up their minds, and praising Luntz and the de Beaumont Foundation for their "important" work.

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Drawing on lessons from the focus groups and accompanying surveys, the de Beaumont Foundation worked with the GOP Doctors Caucus on a series of digital PSAs that lean on the lawmakers' medical credentials and build on a push led by Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., last week.

"As a doctor, I made the decision to get vaccinated against covid-19. I know the facts and I think it was the right choice to make," Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, said in one ad. "While I am a doctor, I am also a Republican member of Congress, and I fully respect that this is your decision to make. Talk to your doctor. Get all the information you need. And decide which vaccine is best for you."

Castrucci argued the PSAs will help take politics out of the push to immunize America.

"I hope the ads from these Republican Congress people bring an end to the partisanship debate around vaccines," he added. "If anyone says there's a political party against these vaccines, I've got videos to show you."

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