Before a row of cameras, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Tim Walz and former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty rolled up their sleeves and relaxed their arms as both men received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday.
The bipartisan effort to encourage Minnesotans to seek innoculation against COVID-19 came on the day all state residents 16 and older became eligible for vaccination.
The photo opportunity, however, wasn’t just a feel-good moment to mark the eligibility expansion: State and health leaders are pulling out all the stops to reach people who are hesitant to take the vaccine for a series of reasons, including skepticism of government, the record-fast development of the vaccines, fear of long-lasting side effects and the preservation of personal liberty.
State and national polling show a concerning trend that could hamper efforts to reach herd immunity as more contagious COVID-19 variants spread. A KSTP/Survey USA poll found that just 56% of Minnesotans who hadn’t yet been vaccinated planned to seek the vaccine, below the 80% rate Walz set as a goal for herd immunity. The same survey, conducted in early March, also found that nearly a quarter of Minnesotans had been vaccinated.
It’s unclear yet what rate of vaccination will be needed to achieve herd immunity from COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization, but it would need to be substantial.
The Survey USA poll of 600 Minnesotans in early March found vaccine hesitancy falls starkly along partisan lines: Half of self-identified Republicans who had not already been vaccinated said they had no plans to be vaccinated, compared with 12% of Democrats.
Pawlenty, the last Republican elected to statewide office in Minnesota, said members of his party might “be a little more skeptical of government or government administrative programs.”
He added: “But, I want to underscore and emphasize and underline and highlight the fact that these vaccines by every known evidence that we have across the globe, certified by authorities in the private and public sector, nonprofit sector, all say the same thing: These vaccines are safe, and incredibly helpful, and everyone should get them.”
Asked whether other GOP elected officials should help spread the same message, Pawlenty did not criticize fellow Republicans who have been lukewarm about sharing their vaccination plans. “The responsible ones are,” Pawlenty said of Republican officeholders who are encouraging people to get vaccinated.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, has regularly credited President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed for helping develop the COVID-19 vaccine in record time, but he has so far not said whether he planned to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
A spokeswoman for Gazelka did not respond to a request seeking comment about the majority leader’s vaccination plan. A survey of the Minnesota congressional delegation found that of the 10 members, seven have said they are vaccinated, but that included just one Republican, U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach. U.S. Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber didn’t respond to inquiries. The Star Tribune also reported that very few Republican state lawmakers responded to their survey on vaccines.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she had already received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, has a Monday appointment but said she did not know which one should be getting, adding: “I wholeheartedly agree that the best vaccine is the one you can get!”
A spokesman for Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the House GOP leader said he plans to be vaccinated.
Meanwhile, early fears that certain racial groups would be resistant to taking the vaccine so far seem largely overblown or have eased over time as more people become vaccinated, organizers and health experts say.
While some Minnesotans of color and others do express distrust of the medical system because of past dark episodes like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, public health experts say the bigger challenge is lack of access and disparities in treatment of people of color by medical professionals.
State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, one of the few Black lawmakers in the state Legislature, acknowledged that some resistance exists among Black Minnesotans.
“The mistrust is legitimate,” she said. “But in this instance, the only shot we’re getting is the shot everyone else is getting.”
Antony Stately, CEO of the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis, said that initially, Native elders showed a high willingness to get vaccinated. More recently, younger and middle aged Native residents have seemed less interested in the vaccine, he said.
At a recent community vaccination event held on Monday, Stately said, “We had the capacity to deliver vaccines to upwards of a couple hundred people, almost 300 people, but we had less than 100 people show up for the vaccine that day.”
Stately said he has heard hesitancy from some people who have moral objections to the use of fetal stem cells used in the development of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Others, he said, worry the vaccine was developed too quickly, and that the vaccine effort in the U.S. had been dubbed Operation Warp Speed.
More than 43,000 people were enrolled in the Pfizer-BioNTech trial, which was reported 95% effective against COVID-19 starting after 28 days from the first dose; the Moderna vaccine trial had more than 30,000 participants and was 94% effective; the Johnson & Johnson vaccine enrolled nearly 44,000 participants and was found to be 85% effective against serious disease after just one dose.
“We have to work to help people understand the basic science around how vaccines are developed, and how much effort is made to make sure that vaccines are safe,” he said.
(While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed using fetal stem cells, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has endorsed its use if other vaccines are not available.)
Ma Elena Gutierrez, director of Fé y Justicia Minnesota, a nonprofit organization partnered with Unidos MN that works with the central Minnesota Latino community, said her group has overcome substantial skepticism from Latinos.
“At the beginning, there were many questions and people refusing the vaccine,” she said in Spanish. “As time passed, as we saw more people getting vaccinated with no side effects, people have started asking to get vaccinated.”
Still, she has faced questions from residents who ask if the vaccine could make women sterile (no); or if the vaccine will change a person’s DNA (also, no); others worry that the vaccine might cause people to decline in health and strength over time (also, no).
Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, a University of Minnesota infectious disease physician and public health professor, said vaccine hesitancy is going to be an obstacle public health leaders will have to overcome.
Some people, she said, will hold fast to their views about vaccines and will ultimately choose not to be vaccinated despite efforts to convince them of their safety and efficacy.
“Effort is better expended with other populations, and hopefully, again some of those individuals will be convinced as they see safety and effectiveness and as more and more of their peer group is vaccinated,” she said.
Wurtz noted that the earliest opposition to vaccines sprang up almost immediately after the development of the smallpox vaccine in 1797. Just a few years later, the first anti-vaccination society started in England in 1802.
“Five years later people were already using almost identical language to language that’s used today about foreign substances, and God-given protection and things like that, and government forcing me,” she said.
Mason, a documentary filmmaker who declined to give his last name for fear of affecting his business, said he would refuse the COVID-19 vaccine over concerns about the mRNA technology used in two of the vaccines.
Generally, Mason believes in evolution and the body’s natural ability to overcome sickness. He also does not get an annual flu shot.
“If the state goes full totalitarian (and mandates the vaccine), I will not participate in living in this state,” said Mason, who describes himself as politically unaffiliated but tends to vote libertarian.
Public health experts and political leaders worry vaccine skeptics could number enough to affect efforts to reach herd immunity.
Lynn Bahta, director of the Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Division, has previously studied vaccine hesitancy in Minnesota. She said in an interview that while some pockets of the state are showing lower rates of vaccination against COVID-19, overall high demand for the vaccine is encouraging.
“We are seeing really high uptake of the vaccine,” Bahta said. “We can’t meet demand right now, but we are prepared to address probably multiple reasons why people might be hesitant to get the COVID vaccine.”
Some Republican-leaning counties, like Isanti and Sherburne, have among the lowest rates of COVID-19 vaccination, though it’s too soon to draw widespread conclusions.
Bahta said the Department of Health will be focusing its efforts on answering questions from residents who are concerned about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, hoping that the additional information will help.
Dr. Ana Núñez, a professor of general internal medicine and vice dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said she is optimistic vaccine hesitancy will dissipate over time.
A major reason, she said, is that people are living through an unprecedented mass inoculation event. People tend to trust information that comes from people they are close to in their social networks or who are leaders in their community, she said. With so many people getting vaccinated without any major side effects, many will choose to do the same, she said.
With summer approaching, she said she anticipates that people will look forward to making plans like hosting cookouts and parties that will socially pressure Minnesotans to become vaccinated.
“In doing this safely, a lot of folks that I’ve talked to are saying, ‘Hey, let’s make our plans so that when you’re vaccinated and I’m vaccinated, we can get together and have a barbecue. The anticipation of what is going to be our new normal is a really compelling reason for people to take care of themselves and be able to get the vaccines.”