How Aaron Rodgers Could Help Defeat Vaccine Hesitancy
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I’m shedding no tears for Aaron Rodgers, the nonpareil quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, who is under a 10-day quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19 and was required to sit out their last game. His various public statements about why exactly he declined the vaccine and what he’s been doing to protect himself don’t quite hang together. Without its highly paid star, his team looked inept in its loss on Sunday.
I admit to a bias here: I’m pro-vaccine, in general and for Covid-19 in particular. At the same time, I recognize that Rodgers’s situation presents an opportunity for a serious conversation about those who remain reluctant to take the vaccines. And if we’re going to be serious, we’re going to have to cast aside some familiar bugaboos.
In the first place, let’s all please stop talking as though the hesitant are ignorant yahoos. A study of health care workers published in August by JAMA Open Network found Black respondents nearly five times as likely as White respondents to be vaccine hesitant. The most common reason was fear of side effects, followed by concern about the vaccines’ novelty.
Other polls have shown similar results. A September study of personnel at a large California medical facility found significantly elevated hesitancy among Black and Hispanic workers, women, those with less formal education, and non-clinical staff. In fact, when the Covid vaccines were still in clinical trials, polls indicated that being non-White was a good predictor of hesitancy. So if we’re going to impose mandates, we should recognize that the imposition will be on a group that is disproportionately female and non-White.
We should also stop pretending that hesitancy about the Covid vaccine is somehow a function of entitled 21st-century America. Vaccine hesitancy is neither new nor distinctly American.
The historian Michael Willrich, in his fine volume “Pox: An American History,” describes the long, difficult effort at the turn of the century to get smallpox vaccinations into the arms of “citizens who detested the procedure and feared its results.” More than a century later, a 2012 article in the AMA Journal of Ethics lamented that many patients see new vaccines “not as triumphs of medical research but as overreaches by a profit-obsessed pharmaceutical industry and an accommodating, financially conflicted medical establishment.” In Europe, a 2018 survey found wide variation in the public’s view of the safety of vaccinations. Barely half of French respondents, for example, considered flu vaccines safe; almost one of three Belgians had doubts about the safety of MMR shots. (If you’re wondering, the country with the highest overall confidence in vaccines was Portugal.)
Moreover, the notion that consumers should happily embrace novel pharmaceuticals is a recent — one might even say sudden — development, even within the medical profession. A 2015 article in the Archives of Internal Medicine urged physicians to be cautious in adopting new drugs. “Wait until drugs have sufficient time on the market,” the essay counseled. Doctors were also warned that they should “avoid seduction by elegant molecular pharmacology.” (A quite fascinating bit, given where we are.) As for harmful side effects, medical journals have long published articles arguing that drug makers tend to conceal or downplay risks, both when marketing to physicians and when touting their products on social media.
Popular culture, too, has fostered mistrust of drugmakers. Until the pandemic, pharmaceutical companies were favorite whipping boys, particularly in Hollywood. As recently as 2019, Big Pharma was the least trusted industry in the U.S. Overcoming uneasiness and fear about new drugs is no simple matter.
In short, whether well-founded or not, skepticism about the pharmaceutical industry has a long history. It seems odd to demand that those who’ve been exposed to it for decades abruptly cast doubt aside. And although I’ve never shared the skepticism, those who have long sowed doubt and suspicion of Big Pharma’s motives are peculiarly placed to argue that the hesitant are behaving irrationally in mistrusting the industry on the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines.
In sum, if we’re going to have a serious public conversation, we’re going to have to let go of a lot of misimpressions and biases. And given the complex interplay of history and judgment about risk, persuasion is preferable to coercion. Which brings us back to Aaron Rodgers. If he’s able to swallow his pride, admit his error, and heartily endorse vaccination, he might even help make some of the vaccine hesitant less so.
Note that among health care workers, race, gender and occupational category are not independent variables.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
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