California’s secret weapon in COVID-19 success: Residents less skeptical about vaccines
A number of factors have fueled California’s remarkable turnaround from national epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic to having one of the lowest case rates in the U.S.
But one weapon in its arsenal has gone largely unnoticed: Californians’ general embrace of COVID-19 vaccines, relative to residents of other states.
Federal data indicate only about 11% of Californians are estimated to be vaccine hesitant, a lower rate than all but four states: Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Hawaii.
This relative lack of reluctance has undoubtedly been a boon for the state’s inoculation campaign — though a Los Angeles Times analysis shows Californians in some of the state’s conservative rural areas remain more disinclined to get the shots than their urban-dwelling neighbors.
According to estimates from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which are based on survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the seven California counties pegged as being most dubious toward the COVID-19 vaccines are Yuba, Del Norte, Plumas, Modoc, Siskiyou, Lassen and Kings.
The share of those counties’ populations estimated to be vaccine hesitant — meaning they either would probably not or definitely not receive a COVID-19 vaccine when available — ranged from 14% to 16%.
By comparison, the rates in the least hesitant of California's 58 counties — San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Orange and Alameda — were between 7% and 9%, federal estimates show. The federal estimates put Sonoma and Napa counties at 10% and Mendocino and Lake counties at 14%. Those numbers are lower than a recent North Bay Council survey with different methodology that showed a hesitancy rate for a group of counties including Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties as high as 23%.
Officials and experts say there’s no one overriding reason why certain groups or individuals might be more dubious about the doses than others. Some may be skeptical for political reasons or because of deep-rooted distrust in the healthcare systems that have long overlooked or underserved them.
Other people may just be uncomfortable with the seeming speed at which the vaccines were developed.
In Los Angeles County, where an estimated 11% of the population may be vaccine hesitant, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said she doesn’t think it’s unreasonable that people may be “looking for more information before they make up their minds about when and if to get vaccinated, who want to better understand safety issues and concerns.”
“They want to make sure they understand, ʽWhy bother getting vaccinated? What’s the effectiveness of this?’” she said during a recent briefing.
There are signs that interest in the vaccine has waned recently in the county. There was a 50% drop in first dose appointments this past week, Ferrer said, and city officials announced Friday that the Dodger Stadium vaccination site — one of the largest in the country — would close by the end of May.
That some people may be more reluctant to get vaccinated isn’t a surprise, officials and experts say. A segment of the population has long been resistant, or outwardly hostile, to all manner of inoculations, and that probably won’t change, even in the face of a pandemic.
While it’s doubtful the entire population will ever be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, health experts have said a smaller but still significant share — usually estimated at 80% or higher — is what’s needed to achieve herd immunity, the threshold at which enough people are shielded against transmission that the coronavirus is unlikely to spread.
Too many people refusing to get vaccinated would lengthen California’s trek toward widespread protection. And with the vaccine rollout entering its fifth month, there are concerns that those who were eager to roll up their sleeves may have already been vaccinated, leaving a much harder task ahead: persuading those who are less willing to get a shot.
Even if the state reaches herd immunity, there is a fear that high numbers of vaccine holdouts in particular communities would still give the coronavirus ample opportunities to spread, further prolonging the pandemic.
“We cannot hide behind what the average number is. We have to look at our pockets” where transmission could remain, said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a medical epidemiologist and infectious disease expert and a professor at UCLA Fielding of Public Health.
Though officials caution against reading too much into small geographical differences, the estimated hesitancy lists do line up neatly — though not entirely — with county-level vaccine coverage in California.