Why Increasing COVID-19 Fatalities May Not Sway the Unvaccinated

39% of Americans know someone who has died from COVID-19, but they are not more likely to be vaccinated

With nearly 700,000 Americans now dead from COVID-19, the US has reached yet another grim milestone. One in five hundred Americans have died from COVID-19. Unvaccinated Americans  are suffering the vast majority of serious illnesses and deaths—in fact they are 11 times more likely to die from a COVID-19 infection. And it begs the question: As the unvaccinated see their friends and family members succumb to the disease, will it finally convince them to get vaccinated?

So far, the answer seems to be no. An Ipsos survey from early September shows that 39 percent of Americans know someone who died from COVID-19. But vaccination rates among Americans who know someone who died are only marginally higher than the rates among those who do not. What’s more, if you take education and political affiliation into account, knowing someone who has died from COVID-19 has no significant impact on the likelihood of being vaccinated.

A growing body of research shows that many health habits are influenced by those around us. If you know people who are obese, your chances of being overweight are much higher. People who are friends with smokers are more likely to smoke themselves. And if your friends have received the COVID-19 vaccine, you are far more likely to have been vaccinated yourself. So why is the experience of losing a friend, colleague, or family member to COVID-19 not having any measurable effect on behavior?

One reason may be that many unvaccinated Americans still do not see COVID-19 as much of a threat. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that the unvaccinated are far more likely to say the danger from coronavirus has been greatly exaggerated and worry less about getting sick from it. These views have been reinforced by the news they watch, and the political leaders they trust, who continue to downplay the seriousness of the threat. It’s also likely that attitudes toward COVID-19 have not adjusted to the new delta variant, which if not more lethal, is certainly more contagious.

Another reason has to do with vaccine safety concerns. According to the Kaiser poll, most Americans who are unvaccinated say “getting vaccinated is a bigger risk to their health than getting infected with coronavirus.” Vaccine skeptics frequently argue that the COVID-19 vaccine was developed too quickly using an untested mRNA technology for it to be fully safe.

A third possibility is that we tend to have unreliable views of our own health. Obesity—a health condition afflicting 42 percent of the adult population—is a key risk factor in COVID-19 outcomes. But research has shown that most of us think we are healthier than we are. We may be ignorant of underlying health conditions that are undiagnosed or a family history we’re not aware of. Research also shows that Americans tend to believe the poor health outcomes of others are due to personal choices or lifestyle.

But in the end, politics is at the center of all of this. David Leonhardt at the New York Times finds a widening gap between Trump counties and Biden counties in COVID-19 deaths. The decision to get vaccinated has become entangled with identity politics—choosing to get vaccinated for some is about choosing sides in a political struggle. “Partisanship in 2021 is a ruthlessly efficient polarizing force compared to partisanship from the 80’s or 90’s,” says AEI Senior Fellow Nat Malkus who has tracked COVID-19 in public schools over the last 12 months. “That ruthless efficiency is what is new, and this pandemic has been an uncommon stage for it to play out on, because of the stark impacts we are seeing for both peoples’ health and wellbeing.”

But it’s not just partisan identity and tribal attachment. Our social environment matters too. Americans who are unvaccinated are far more likely to have close friends or family members who are also unvaccinated. Being surrounded by those who are resistant to getting the vaccine means facing a different type of social pressure. If you are constantly hearing from people you trust that COVID-19 is a hoax, political propaganda, or a way for the government to control you, at some point you may start believing it.

Is there any reason for optimism? Yes! Even if losing someone to COVID-19 does not lead one to get vaccinated, the experience may change how we think about the disease. Americans who know someone who has died from COVID-19 express greater concern about it than those who do not. It’s possible there is a lag between when people have experienced a loss, processed it, and then changed their behavior because of it. Finally, vaccines are still widely trusted in the US. Americans who have refused the COVID-19 vaccine are not necessarily opposed to vaccinations on principle. A new survey from the Survey Center on American Life finds that most parents—Republicans and Democrats alike—support vaccinating their children against childhood diseases. It’s a mistake to think that vaccine resistance is the result of people making completely irrational decisions and that personal experience carries no weight. It counts for a lot and ultimately that may be a good thing.