BALTIMORE — U.S. COVID-19 vaccination rates continue to lag largely due to widespread disinformation and misinformation campaigns designed to suppress the science and sway people from getting immunized against the virus, a top epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said Wednesday.
Less than 50% of the U.S. population and 60% of those older than 18 have been fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Slightly more than 56% of the population has received at least one dose. That’s well behind the goal President Joe Biden’s administration set for the nation in March, which aimed for 70% of adults to have at least one dose of vaccine by July 4.
Jennifer Nuzzo, the Hopkins epidemiologist and senior scholar at its Center for Health Security, said she has met personally with several groups representing a range of political ideologies — “health care workers, celebrities, Q-Anon conspirators, moms” — and found that most people have reasonable questions and concerns about the vaccines that can be addressed.
But some U.S. politicians, cable news talk show hosts and other internet-based conspiracy theorists are muddling public health officials’ progress, she said, with blatant lies and misleading claims.
“We need a national plan to address it,” Nuzzo said during a virtual seminar with U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, former acting Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Andy Slavitt and others. “Unfortunately, our efforts have slowed and our rollout of vaccine is meeting a tremendous amount of resistance, and it’s setting us back far from where we need to be right now.”
Infections, hospitalizations and deaths caused by the coronavirus plummeted as vaccinations picked up in the spring and early summer. But as supply grew, demand fell.
States like Maryland have created vaccine equity task forces meant to bring immunizations into communities with access challenges. But the work is slow and tedious, and the mass vaccination centers meant to quickly vaccinate as many people as possible statewide have closed.
Because so many people — including children younger than 12, who remain ineligible for the vaccines — have not been immunized, the virus continues to mutate. Several “variants of concern” have been identified by the CDC, including the delta variant. Some are considered more contagious and more effective at neutralizing the protection offered by vaccines.
“We have an even faster growing virus, probably twice as fast as 2020′s virus, yet we have a tool that can stop it,” Slavitt said. “People have decided to politicize the issue of vaccines for some reason.”
It’s possible more people will want to get vaccinated after the vaccines receive full federal approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Slavitt said. But for now, “everything should be on the table” to protect against the virus, he said, including mandatory vaccine or daily testing policies at workplaces, events and schools.