Many Republicans fear the COVID vaccine more than they fear the virus itself, and building their confidence will require getting politics out of health discussions.

These were among the findings from a focus group organized by the de Beaumont Foundation and led by pollster Frank Luntz on March 13. The session with 19 Republicans who said they may or probably won’t get a COVID vaccine was part of the research that Luntz and de Beaumont have partnered on to build confidence in the COVID vaccine and improve compliance with public health measures. Our focus has been on developing messaging and language that overcomes concerns and reassures Americans about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. (See more clips and a summary of the focus group and results from our COVID-19 vaccine poll conducted in December.)

View a 30-minute highlight reel of the March 13 focus group:

The discussion provided unprecedented insights into the concerns of some Republicans and revealed messaging and language that can serve as an effective roadmap for building acceptance and uptake of COVID vaccines. These insights are being used to inform a national poll with Republicans we will release next week. The 19 people recruited for this focus group met the following criteria:

  • They identify as Republican.
  • They voted for President Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
  • They identify as “conservative” in their political ideology.
  • They responded “maybe” or “probably not” when asked if they will get a COVID vaccine.
  • They are not “anti-vaxxers” – they have taken other common vaccines in the past, including but not limited to vaccines for measles, polio, or hepatitis.

Key takeaways included:

  • Politicians are ineffective messengers — the mistrust of government and political leaders is significant, so it’s important to decouple science and politics.
  • Unknown side effects are a major concern.
  • Good stories help.
  • The ability to travel is a strong motivator for getting a vaccine.
  • These participants were more interested in facts and data than emotional arguments — and they don’t want to be told what to do. As one of them said, “We want to be educated, not indoctrinated.”

Brian C. Castrucci, DrPH, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, wasn’t surprised by the negative attitude toward elected officials. “If I have a heart attack,” he said, “I don’t want a politician running over to give me care. I want a doctor, I want a nurse. Why should this be any different?”

By the end of the session, nearly every participant said they were more likely to get the vaccine. What changed? Part of it was stories about the randomness of COVID-19 — dramatically showing that even young, healthy people can be hospitalized or even die. Part of it was the fact that the vaccine was not developed from scratch — more than a decade of research went into creating an effective vaccine. More than anything else, though, it was hearing simple facts from Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC. Here are his five facts:

  1. If you get infected with the virus, it will go all over your body and stay there for at least a week and be much more likely to cause you long-term problems than the vaccine.
  2. If you get the vaccine, it will prime your immune system, but then the vaccine is gone. It will not be with you anymore.
  3. More than 90% of the doctors who have been offered this vaccine have chosen to get it.
  4. The more we vaccinate, the faster we can get back to growing our economy and doing the things we want to do.
  5. If people get vaccinated, we’re going to save at least 100,000 lives of Americans who would otherwise be killed by COVID.

Reflecting on the session later, Luntz concluded, “Trump Republicans remain the last significant holdout in embracing the COVID-19 vaccine — but we now have hope. A combination of key medical facts, enumerated clearly without any political undertones, and a human story of just how random and deadly the virus has been, is a convincing, motivating message. If the elected officials and the public health experts adopt this strategy, they will save thousands of lives.”

Some factoids:

  • Despite their strong support for President Trump, when asked if he or their doctor would be more influential in their decision to get vaccinated, they all said their doctor.
  • Twelve of 19 said their fear of the vaccine is greater than their fear of getting COVID-19.
  • When asked if they are more inclined to trust or distrust the CDC, 11 of 19 said “distrust.”

See more details, including a seven-page summary and additional video clips.

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