Multiple survey results have spoken—women are more skeptical of COVID-19 vaccinations than men. These findings are incredibly concerning as the virus continues to rage worldwide because women generally manage their families’ healthcare decisions.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID-19 statistics are troubling—more than 89 million individuals either have had or are currently infected with COVID-19 and 1.9 million people have died because of the disease. The United States leads the world in case counts and deaths, with more than 22 million Americans currently or previously infected with COVID-19 and 373,000 dead, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as of publication time.
To date, two COVID-19 vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, have been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the U.S. Rollout of the vaccinations has been slow, but side effects have been minimal. Still, some women are wary of the vaccine options.
COVID-19 vaccines approved
Some skepticism may stem from the rapid development of the vaccines, as directed under the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. Both approved vaccines followed safety protocols, and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was tested in approximately 43,000 individuals, according to Mayo Clinic.
The FDA approved the vaccines under the Emergency Use Authorization, which allows the agency to approve tests and treatments for quicker use in special circumstances. Vaccines typically take years to develop, and are tested in phase trials before obtaining approval from governing bodies. COVID-19 vaccines went through all of this in a matter of weeks and months.
“Two COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized in an expedited time frame while adhering to the rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality needed to support emergency use authorization that the American people have come to expect from the FDA,” a statement from the FDA reads.
Several governing bodies, healthcare organizations and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, all view vaccines as one of the best tools to end the pandemic. Yet, skepticism among women rose throughout 2020.
“We find that women who are reluctant to vaccinate against COVID-19 are primarily concerned about safety and effectiveness,” Timothy Callaghan, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Texas A&M University, College Station, told The Whipp.
Callaghan and his colleagues surveyed more than 5,000 individuals between May 28-June 8, 2020, to gauge their willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Overall, roughly 31% of Americans did not intend to pursue getting a COVID-19 vaccine when available, but “Blacks, women, conservatives, individuals who intended to vote for President Trump in 2020 and individuals with high levels of religiosity” had higher rates of vaccine refusal.
Women were 71% more likely not to pursue vaccination, while Blacks were 41% more likely not to pursue COVID-19 vaccination.
In comparison to men, women had higher rates of refusal to get vaccinated primarily due to safety and effectiveness concerns. Roughly 22% of women, compared to 13% of men, said they would refuse the vaccine due to safety concerns, while 19% of women, compared to 11% of men, said they would refuse the vaccine due to concerns around effectiveness.
Politics and worry about COVID-19 also play huge roles in vaccine refusal, according to Callaghan’s study.
“Each 1-point increase in conservatism increases the odds of vaccine refusal by 18%, and individuals who intended to vote for President Trump in 2020 vs. making any other political choice are 29% more likely to refuse COVID-19 vaccination,” the study found.
Those that worry more about getting the virus were much more likely to get vaccinated, as well as those who have been tested for COVID-19. Additionally, wealthier people and those who trust experts over ordinary individuals were more likely to get vaccinated.
Current and future pregnancies, Callaghan said, could also be factors among some women for the reluctance to vaccinate against COVID-19.
Women’s rising skepticism
The eye-opening study was conducted fairly early during the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is no data to determine whether his study group’s views of the vaccine have evolved as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have risen since June. But more recent studies suggest the same thing—women are more cautious of COVID-19 vaccines in comparison to men.
A whopping 70% of women said in April 2020 they were likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine, while 79% of men said the same, according to an article published in JAMA. By December, that figure dropped significantly—just 51% of women said they were likely to get the vaccine, compared to 62% of men.
Another survey from Reuters/Ipsos showed 35% of women were either not very interested or not at all interested in getting the COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020, up 9% from a similar poll from May.
Interest in getting the COVID-19 vaccine rose to 60% across all demographics in November 2020, according to a Pew Research survey. Among women, 69% intended to get the vaccine in May 2020, but that number plummeted to 54% by November 2020. At both points in time, more men intended to get vaccinated.
All these surveys point to the same dangerous public health trend. And more education is needed, especially among women and Black individuals, on vaccine safety and efficacy. Vaccinations have been proven to control, if not completely eradicate some diseases, such as polio, smallpox and measles.
Vaccine misinformation floods social media
Misinformation and falsehoods about vaccinations spread mostly via social media are not new, but they can have a devastating impact. For example, a pushback against the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination has led to a resurgence of measles, with almost 1,300 reported cases in 2019, the CDC reported. The pushback comes from unfounded fears of autism in children as a result of vaccination, despite no link between the two.
With regard to the COVID-19 vaccine, misinformation about the impact to female fertility is gaining steam. One such falsehood spread widely on Facebook was a screenshot of a false article titled, “Head of Pfizer Research: Covid Vaccine is Female Sterilization.”
The current head of research at Pfizer never said any such thing.
Pregnant women may be wary due to a lack of information and limited data about the impact of the COVID-19 vaccine to this group. To date, pregnant women have been excluded from most COVID-19 treatment trials. It is a tough decision for expectant mothers—get the vaccine with little to no information regarding safety or run the risk of contracting COVID-19, which can increase the risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes or even death. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends COVID-19 vaccines should not be withheld from pregnant women and should be offered to lactating women. Pregnant women are also encouraged to speak with their physicians about vaccination.
The issue is gaining some attention, with Minnesota-based HealthPartners recently receiving $2 million from the CDC to research the effect of COVID-19 vaccines among pregnant women. The long-term research will determine the risk of adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes and evaluate the risks of stillbirth and miscarriage after a COVID-19 vaccination.
By all accounts from public health officials, the COVID-19 vaccine is effective and safe. Conspiracy theories and falsehoods can only be combated by more education around vaccination. Researchers hope women will see the vaccine as safe and effective as more Americans have the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Identifying effective strategies to convince these groups to vaccinate will be an important next step in helping to end the global pandemic,” Callaghan concluded.