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COVID-19 Misinformation Increasing Vaccine Hesitancy, USF Researchers Find

A vector art image of a hand holding a phone surrounded by various text messages that include false claims about COVID-19 vaccines.
Jacob Wentz
WUSF Public Media
The survey asked respondents if they had heard of popular false claims about COVID-19 vaccines, including that it contains a live strain of the virus, can modify people’s genes and alter their DNA, and is being used to implant 5G microchips in vaccinated individuals.

A recent survey is confirming many people’s suspicions — politics plays a role in whether someone gets the COVID-19 vaccine.

The University of South Florida recently released findings from a statewide survey that looked at some of the factors associated with vaccine hesitancy.

While 56% of Floridians have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, many remain unsure of its safety.

Among the 600 adults surveyed, 35.7% have not yet received the vaccine.

Of those people, 35.3% say that they will “probably not” or “definitely not” get vaccinated. Another 24.3% are still undecided.

The most significant drivers of hesitancy among Floridians include concerns over potential side effectsand fears that vaccines were granted emergency approval too quickly, researchers said.

Almost three quarters (74.2%) of those who say they will “probably not” or “definitely not” get vaccinated indicated that they are concerned about the potential side effects. Nearly half (50.5%) indicated that they feel the vaccines were created too quickly.

“The vaccine itself was created in record time, but the mRNA technology behind that vaccine has been in development for a long time now,” said Stephen Neely, associate professor in USF’s School of Public Affairs.

“So there's a bit of misinformation about how quickly the vaccine actually was developed, and what goes into the vaccine.”

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines safe and effective after analyzing several clinical trials. Two months later, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was also determined to be safe and effective. All three vaccines were given emergency use authorization by the FDA.

But misinformation about the pandemic and the vaccines has been on the rise in the U.S.

Nearly three-quarters of the survey’s respondents (73.2%) reported seeing or hearing at least one of eight common falsehoods related to COVID-19 vaccines in the past six months.

The most frequently encountered misinformation themes included claims that “COVID-19 vaccines contain a ‘live strain’ of the virus” (42.8%), “COVID-19 vaccines contain 5G microchips” (38.5%), and “COVID-19 vaccines modify people’s genes and alter their DNA” (36.3%).

The study found that there’s a direct correlation between exposure to misinformation and the decreased likelihood of receiving a vaccine.

“We asked respondents about their exposure to those themes and what we found is that the more that people are exposed to misinformation — not necessarily even believe it, just the more they're exposed to it — the less likely they are to have been vaccinated,” Neely said.

Among those who did not report encountering any of the misinformation themes, 73.8% had been vaccinated. That number fell to 62.9% among those encountering at least one source of misinformation, while 52.2% of those encountering six or more falsehoods reported being vaccinated.

“That's probably the biggest, most important takeaway from a public health perspective.”

The study also confirmed many people’s suspicions that politics plays a role in whether someone gets the COVID-19 vaccine.

Participants who identified as Democrats were significantly more likely to have been vaccinated (73.4%) compared to Republicans (58.5%) and independents (56.5%).

“COVID has been highly politicized. So it becomes difficult to separate the politicization of the pandemic from the individual health choices that individuals are making,” Neely said.

“The moment somebody starts to view COVID-19 as a political issue, whether consciously or not, they're going to start taking behavior cues from political leaders and they're going to stop taking informational cues from health officials and from healthcare professionals.”

Only 32.3% of respondents report having spoken with their primary care doctor about whether one of the COVID-19 vaccines is appropriate for them.

The survey of 600 Floridians took place earlier this month. Results are reported with a confidence level of 95% and a margin of error plus or minus 4%.

A second round of results, which examines COVID-19 and hurricane preparedness has also been released this week. You can read the findings of that survey here.

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.