California Plans to Safely Reopen Despite Vaccine Naysayers

Gov. Gavin Newsom hopes to reopen the state by June 15, but that timeline relies on low hospitalization rates and a consistent supply of COVID vaccines. It also counts on the state achieving herd immunity.

(TNS) — Gov. Gavin Newsom said his plan to reopen California for "business as usual" by June 15 banks on a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccine and low hospitalization rates.

But that two-month deadline leaves little time to convince "vaccine hesitant" Californians that the shots are safe and effective and the best tool we have to getting back to some sort of normal.

Without so-called herd immunity — the point at which the majority of the population is protected against the virus — California risks prolonging the pandemic.

"The only reason a virus wants to live is to replicate," said Dr. Rupali J. Limaye, an associate scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "If you have fewer people who are getting vaccinated against this virus, the longer it's going to take to reach herd immunity." Forty-four percent of Californians over age 16 had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by April 7, according to the state's vaccination dashboard. Those numbers are expected to dramatically increase when the state officially opens availability to everyone 16 and up on April 15.

Public health experts say that at least 70 percent to 85 percent of the population needs to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to reach herd immunity.

In a March 2021 Public Policy Institute of California poll, 21 percent of those surveyed said they are unlikely to or definitely would not get the vaccine, which could spell trouble for Newsom's June 15 deadline.

Vaccine hesitancy falls across party lines and racial demographics, Limaye said, and has flourished amid conspiracy theories, hyper-partisan politics and an era of distrust in the government and medical institutions.

"Besides the fact that they are worried about the safety and efficacy because it was expedited, they feel the process has been politicized," Limaye said. "They feel as though there is a bias here, that essentially many things that were done were done for political gain. And that leads to hesitancy."

Who's Skeptical?

Vaccine hesitancy isn't "uniformly distributed," Limaye said. Instead, it tends to cluster in certain demographics.

Twenty-nine percent of Black Californians surveyed for the March Public Policy Institute of California report said they didn't want to get the shot, while 22 percent of Latinos said the same. One in five whites interviewed said they didn't want to be vaccinated, while only 5 percent of Asian Americans reported hesitancy.

State data also show that Californians 65 and older aren't signing up to get the vaccine at the rate they did when they became eligible three months ago.

The number of California seniors with at least one vaccine dose grew, on average, by about 15,000 each day from April 2 to April 8, state figures show. A month earlier, that number was growing by 45,000 a day. Two months earlier, that number was growing by 101,000 a day. About 1.2 million California seniors have yet to receive a dose.

Elderly Californians living in counties that voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020 are particularly less likely to sign up for the vaccine, according to a Bee review of federal data.

Fewer than half of California Republicans said they were willing to get the shot in a February UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies report.

"The disease has been politicized from the beginning in the United States," said GOP consultant Rob Stutzman.

To persuade more Republicans into a vaccine appointment, Stutzman said California public health and political officials need to strategically reach out to this voting bloc.

"Gavin Newsom and Joe Biden imploring Republican men, or Republicans in general, to get vaccinated isn't going to solve their problems. Former President Trump enthusiastically endorsed the vaccine, said he got it, and encouraged people to get it. There's a lot that can be done with that," Stutzman said.

Public Awareness Campaign

Vaccine hesitancy isn't a novel challenge. What's new, said Jevin West, director of the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, is how many people are turning to groups spreading inaccuracies online for answers to their questions.

"There's so much noise out there, so much misinformation on this particular topic," West said. "There's always hesitancy. That's not what's new. What's new is the media environment in which people get information, and we're still figuring that out as a society. We have a challenge."

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said during an April 6 press call that state officials were working hard to address vaccine skepticism through a $40 million statewide public awareness campaign.

The California Department of Public Health is also partnering with local advocacy groups and leaders to build trust in marginalized communities that historically have been excluded or mistreated by medical organizations.

Ghaly said that the campaign addresses "reasonable, important, very thoughtful questions" that Californians have about "what the vaccine does, how it works and what it will do in the long and short run."

Ads from the campaign acknowledge fears some Californians have expressed.

In one, an East Palo Alto man says, "I'm not sure if there's anything I could say to my family members to convince them to take the COVID-19 vaccine. I'm not even sure if I'm convinced.

In the ad, California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris responds, "I think people respond more to what we do than we say. So after looking at all the data and the science about these vaccines, I got the vaccine. And I made sure that my mom and dad got the vaccine. Because these vaccines are safe."

The statewide campaign has helped, said Dr. Sandra R. Hernández, president and CEO of the California Health Care Foundation. But the "micro campaigns," meaning the community partnerships and local networking, have been most effective.

"This is relationship-based," Hernández said. "Frankly, it has a bit to do with word of mouth. 'Oh you got a vaccine. Why'd you do that? Where'd you go, what information did they ask? To promote health equity, those are the kinds of relationships in listening and responding we need to do in order to capture that group."

Vaccine Confidence Climbing

Sixty-one percent of Californians said in the Public Policy Institute of California survey that they were either already vaccinated or had definite plans to get inoculated, up from 48 percent in January. Another 18 percent said they would probably sign up for an appointment.

Ghaly said state officials are already starting to see vaccine hesitancy decline.

"We see a number of individuals who might have been considered hesitant in the past willing to get vaccinated to protect themselves, others and their communities," Ghaly said.

Vaccine hesitancy will also decrease as more communities gain access to appointments and resources to help make them informed decisions, said Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.

"We really find the biggest barrier is not hesitancy, but access," said Savage-Sangwan said. "Are there any appointments available? Are they at a time when you're not working? Is the facility close to where you live?

Skepticism in Black and Latino communities, which were disproportionately hard-hit by the pandemic, isn't necessarily because residents don't want to get vaccinated, added Hernández, with the California Health Care Foundation.

Instead, people might have questions about safety, or worry they need insurance. They might wonder how much identifying information they'll be required to share, or if they'll have out-of-pocket costs.

More often than not, Hernández said, people want to get vaccinated once they get their questions answered.

"This is a real opportunity to reach into communities that are hesitant about a lot of things, not just the COVID vaccine," Hernández said. "Hesitancy is declining."

(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.