‘Too Many Questions’: Deep-Rooted Mistrust Feeds Doubt About Vaccines

Initially, Jonathan Damato didn’t just plan to get vaccinated — he was excited about it.

Damato is 41 and has been a New York City paramedic for about 20 years. His job puts him on the frontlines of the global coronavirus pandemic. Going to work each day means not only exposing himself to Covid-19, but also exposing his wife and five children. The past year has proven especially tough because one of his five children, 4-year-old Nico, has a heart condition that heightens his risk of becoming very ill from the virus. 

Back around Thanksgiving, Damato shared a CNBC article on Facebook about potential side effects of the vaccine, along with his own skeptical commentary that no side effects could possibly be as bad as the world shutting down. An aunt in Florida, who’s a nurse, texted him back to say she had a video she wanted him to watch before making up his mind about the vaccine. The video featured an anti-vaccine activist and was full of misinformation suggesting that the vaccines hadn’t been sufficiently tested and that major safety issues had been overlooked. After watching it, and then doing a little more research, Damato was no longer so sure about getting the vaccine.

“There are too many questions that I have,” he says in episode one of “Doubt,” a new podcast from Bloomberg Prognosis about the myriad forces that have led so many like him to misgivings about getting a vaccine. He worried now about possible extreme side effects that could injure him, and leave him unable to provide for his family, or worse.

“I'm torn between both, you know, I really am,” Damato says. “I'm torn between both.”

Vaccine hesitancy isn't a phenomenon of the pandemic. There have been concerns about vaccines as long as there have been vaccines. The current wave dates back to the 1980s when misplaced fears arose about mercury in the three-in-one shot for diptheria, whooping cough and and tetanus. Then, in 1998, a widely publicized paper falsely linked measles vaccines to autism. But those misinformation campaigns couldn’t have gained momentum without another key ingredient: a deep-seated skepticism of drugmakers and government agencies that oversee them. 

“Sometimes the rumor is not really about the rumor. It's about a lot of distrust,” says Heidi Larson, the founder of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “If you don't trust the system, you're much more gullible to conspiracies than others.”

 In January, when Damato’s Staten Island station was offered the vaccine, he opted out. He wasn’t alone. Last month, the Fire Department of the City of New York reported that more than half of EMS workers like Damato declined a shot. Over the years, he had reasons to not always trust the health advice of his employer. Working amid toxic dust and debris in the air when responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack without proper protective gear, Damato experienced respiratory problems. He says protective gear was also an issue at the start of the pandemic. And he often felt he didn’t have all the training he needed to deal with the crush of Covid cases.

The FDNY later said the health of responders to the 9/11 attack was a “complex” issue but it didn’t contradict what its members have said about that day. In response to Damato’s critique of the department during the pandemic, a FDNY spokseperson said that protective gear was an issue for all agencies at that time, as the entire world competed for limited supplies.

Similar data suggests widespread skepticism of vaccines among health care workers nationally. According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll published last week, about 1 in 3 frontline health workers said they weren’t confident vaccines were sufficiently tested for safety and effectiveness. About 18% don’t plan to get vaccinated at all.

Hesitancy among frontline health-care workers shows how widespread concern about the vaccine has become. Months into the U.S. vaccine rollout, the Kaiser Family Foundation also reports significant skepticism among Black and Hispanic people, Republicans, younger people and rural populations.

‘Too Many Questions’: Deep-Rooted Mistrust Feeds Doubt About Vaccines

As the supply and availability of vaccines increases and more Americans are able to receive them, skepticism risks becoming a major impediment to the rollout. Recent polling from Kaiser suggests 22% of American adults are still on the fence about vaccines, 7% will get one only if required and 15% still plan to not get one at all. Those numbers are troubling because unless the vast majority of Americans receive shots, the virus is likely to keep spreading. 

Damato insists he isn’t against vaccines in principle. Many—or even most—of those wary of vaccines would probably say the same. The number of those actually working in concerted opposition to vaccines is still very small. But they are highly organized, well-funded and savvy at using tools like social media to find new audiences. As anti-vaccine messaging has gone mainstream, it’s reaching that large number of people in the middle.

That’s why the Covid vaccine campaign has put the debate at a critical crossroads that could either restore faith in vaccines or further harden people against them. The good news is that for the millions of people in the U.S. like Damato, there’s still time for them to change the minds in favor of a vaccine as they see the results of their friends and neighbors doing fine.

“I'm not saying I'll never get it,” he says.

If the next few months go the right way, he just might.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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