If a large percentage of people forgo a vaccine, “It’s going to make it incredibly hard to totally rid the virus in the population,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Medical experts are worried that Americans' resistance to getting a coronavirus vaccine could stymie efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. 

A recent national Washington Post/ABC poll, and a poll of Long Islanders and New York City residents by Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, each found that only 45% or fewer of respondents said they would get a coronavirus vaccine if one is developed.

About a quarter in each poll said they would not, and the rest said they weren’t sure or wouldn’t answer.

If a large percentage of people forgo a vaccine, “It’s going to make it incredibly hard to totally rid the virus in the population,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

A return to pre-COVID-19 life could be possible if significantly more than half of Americans — the percentage is unknown — get a vaccine, the number of new infections is low and those who already contracted the virus are immune from getting sick again, she said.

That enticement of normal life could lead some who now are leery about a coronavirus vaccine to get one once it is available, said Noel Brewer, a professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina who sits on World Health Organization committees on vaccine behavior and safety.

“If a vaccine allows you to no longer wear a mask at work, or to visit your grandmother in a nursing home, or to shake hands with business colleagues, that could be very motivating,” he said.

Brewer said he is not worried about the poll results.

“When they’re faced with the real benefits and the real potential costs of a vaccine, I think people’s opinions could change,” he said.

Brewer said it is reasonable for people to have doubts about a vaccine that hasn’t been developed. 

With any vaccine, “Patients have legitimate questions: ‘Hey I saw this on social media. Is there truth to this?’ ” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at South Nassau.

A study by University of Pennsylvania researchers released in January found that people who got most of their news on social media were more likely to be misinformed about vaccines, and that distrust of “medical experts” is the biggest factor associated with incorrect vaccine information.

Glatt said even those who may say they distrust medical experts likely trust their personal doctor.

“Most people love their pediatricians. Most people listen to their internists,” he said. 

They should answer patients' questions and "point them to good websites where you can get legitimate information rather than having them Google and who knows what comes up,” he said.

Physicians would recommend a coronavirus vaccine if studies show it to be safe and effective, and Glatt said he has "no doubt the government is not going to just throw this out there without it being properly tested."

One of the reasons some are cautious about a future coronavirus vaccine is that people often are hesitant about new drugs, said Dr. Harvey Fineberg, co-chair of the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science and Policy Group, a program of the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute that this month released a report titled “Meeting the Challenge of Vaccination Hesitancy.”

“There’s probably an added layer of worry that we’re in such a hurry to get protected from a vaccine, will we short-circuit the necessary levels of testing, and of safety as well as effectiveness?” said Fineberg, president of the Palo Alto, California-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which funds scientific research and other initiatives.

In an interview Tuesday on the NPR program “1A,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, considered the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said the pace of vaccine development efforts is “not at the expense of safety.” One way to expedite the release of a vaccine is to begin manufacturing a promising candidate while tests are still occurring, Fauci recently said in an interview with the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Yet Rita Palma, a Blue Point resident and leading activist against mandatory vaccinations for measles and other diseases, is skeptical. “Why would I want to bother with a vaccine that they’re rushing to market?” she asked.

She said she would never take a coronavirus vaccine. “I’d rather rely on my own judgment, my own ways to be healthy and heal, rather than what the government tells me,” she said. “The government lies.”

Palma said she has seen a rise in general hesitancy about taking vaccines, although Brewer said only 1% to 2% of the U.S. population refuses to get any vaccines at all.

“There are very, very few people” actively opposing vaccines, even though they are very vocal, and they won’t have much effect on whether Americans get a coronavirus vaccine, he predicted.

Once a vaccine is released, trusted community figures — such as nurses and religious leaders — should help promote acceptance of it, and it should be widely available in schools, workplaces and pharmacies, Fineberg said.

“You want to make it comfortable and easy,” he said.

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