More than a third of Michigan voters say they won't get vaccinated against COVID-19

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

More than a third of Michigan voters say they will not get vaccinated against the coronavirus, even if the measure is federally approved and recommended by their doctor, according to a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll.

When asked if they would take a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration, 39% said they would not; 44% indicated that they would and the remainder were unsure.

While drugmakers are trying to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus, at least one-third of Michigan voters said they wouldn't get vaccinated if the federal government approved an antidote to the virus, according to a Detroit News-WDIV poll.

When asked if they would get inoculated if recommended by their physician, 34% still said they would not; 55% said they would.

The substantial numbers who said they would not get vaccinated signals an uphill climb for the state to convince residents that an approved vaccine is both reliable and important for public and personal health.

“It’s going to be a tough sell unless we have very solid data on the vaccine,” said Nigel Paneth, a distinguished professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics. “I hope and think we will have solid data, but it will take some time.”

The poll of 600 likely Michigan voters was conducted with live operator interviews throughout the state. Half of those were reached by cell phone. Conducted by Lansing-based Glengariff Group, the poll had an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Read the survey: How Michigan voters feel ahead of the Nov. 3 election

Of those surveyed, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to accept the vaccine, men were more likely than women and whites were more likely than Blacks.

“I think there is a partisan difference we’re seeing,” said Richard Czuba, founder of Glengariff Group. “We’re seeing reluctance on the Democratic and independent side because they see it as being rushed right now. We’re seeing reluctance on the Republican side because they don’t see the virus as a serious threat.”

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Individuals over 50 years old were far more likely to say they would get the vaccine than younger voters.

And 47% of whites said they would get a vaccine, compared with only 26% of African Americans, despite the fact that pre-existing health conditions more prominent in the Black population make them more likely to suffer severe cases of the disease.

"We have a consistent one-third of the population that is going to have true reluctance to this," Czuba said.

The mistrust of a vaccine is likely a symptom of three forces, Paneth said: A general opposition to vaccines in any form, anxiety about political pressure rushing the drug’s approval or the belief that the virus isn’t enough of a threat to merit a vaccine.

Urging patience

Tom Leagon of Hudsonville said he would not get vaccinated, citing worries about the speed at which the immunizations are being developed.

“You can’t just push out a vaccine,” said Leagon, 49, who was among those who responded to the poll. “Even with all the technology we have, it is a completely different type of vaccine we need … that needs a little more time, more case studies.”

Victoria Gray of Clinton has always received her vaccines and encouraged her children to get them, but she’s not likely to sign up herself or children for a coronavirus vaccine under President Donald Trump. 

“I would prefer to probably be inoculated under someone else,” Gray said. “I understand it’s a long process. It takes time. And I’ve never really heard of anything being proven this quickly. The current president scares me, and I do not trust him.”

The fears came as the FDA on Tuesday laid out safety standards for manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines after their release was initially blocked by the White House. In documents posted on its website, the FDA said vaccine manufacturers should follow trial participants for at least two months to rule out safety issues before seeking emergency approval.

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The requirement will almost certainly delay availability of any vaccine until well after the Nov. 3 election.

Alyssa Kogut of Holt said she trusts the FDA will go through the proper procedures to verify the vaccine's effectiveness and safety. And the 32-year-old has had enough experience with COVID-19 to believe that vaccination is necessary. 

Her aunt died of the virus and her uncle was hospitalized with coronavirus. Kogut has diabetes and her daughter has asthma. 

“This is a pandemic and we need to stop it, and if everybody would get vaccinated, it would definitely help stop it,” Kogut said. “I would hope people take that to protect us and especially kids.”

Mistrust an obstacle

Ongoing mistrust of the vaccine options could signal trouble in vaccinating enough people to make a difference in Michigan, MSU epidemiologist Paneth said. 

If 10% of the state’s population naturally has developed some sort of immunity to the virus, the state would need more than an additional 44% of the population to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity, Paneth said.  

“What herd immunity means is that you have enough immunity that cases are sporadic and spread out,” he said. “It doesn’t reduce the caseload to zero. You’ll still have cases, but you probably won’t have outbreaks like we're seeing now.”

When asked last month if she was considering mandating vaccination against coronavirus, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said it was “too early to contemplate that” and argued there was concern that the White House would unveil one as an “Election Day gimmick.”

“Any sort of positions around a vaccine that come from the federal government I think are going to be inherently challenging,” Whitmer said. “And that’s why it’s got to be done right, it has to have efficacy, has to be supported by the appropriate testing so people have confidence that this is something they want to put into their bodies.”

In March, University of Michigan Law Professor Nicholas Bagley wrote in a blog post on the Incidental Economist that under state law, the Michigan health director could “conceivably” order residents to get the vaccine “if doing so was necessary to protect the broader public health.”

Shortly after writing the article, but before it was posted, Bagley was hired as part of Whitmer’s legal team and served in the role through Aug. 7, according to the governor’s office. 

On Tuesday, Bagley said he neither advised nor had conversations with the Whitmer administration about vaccines, noting it would have been inappropriate without a valid vaccine on the market. 

“I was writing that in my capacity as a law professor in thinking through what you could potentially do back in March,” Bagley said. “I have heard zero indication that this was under any kind of discussion.”

The state health department’s epidemic authority is “broad,” but a vaccine mandate would be “pushing up against the edges of what the law permits," he said.  

Public trust and ease of access to the vaccine — both financially and logistically — probably will be more important to the vaccine’s success in the future, Bagley said.