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UAMS Study Delves Into Vaccine Hesitancy In Arkansas

A dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was shown to reporters at the Arkansas Department of Health on Dec. 14, 2020 just before the first doses were administered in the state.
Michael Hibblen

A newly-published study by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences looks at the hesitation some people in Arkansas have about getting vaccinated for COVID-19. Researchers found 21% of those surveyed had some degree of vaccine hesitancy.

The Arkansas Department of Health has reported steadily increasing numbers of people who have been fully vaccinated, and last Wednesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson touted on Twitter that the state had surpassed 1.1 million vaccinations. But there are still many who are reluctant to get a shot.

The study, published this month in the medical journal Clinical and Translational Science, says trust in vaccines, fear of infection, income and race are key factors. The research was conducted before vaccines became available and before the current resurgence, which is blamed on the more virulent delta variant. The results brought new questions that researchers hope to probe in the future.

Don Willis, Ph.D, was co-principal investigator and the lead author of the study. He spoke with KUAR News about the results, with an edited transcript of the interview below.

KUAR’s MICHAEL HIBBLEN: First, tell me about this study and what you found.

DR. DON WILLIS: With this study, we really thought it was important to better understand the vaccine hesitancy and how it might differ across various groups, because we already know that there are significant health disparities that exist in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. Understanding how differences and feelings and attitudes about the vaccine was really important for potentially helping us better understand how we might reduce those disparities.

We believe it's important to understand why people are hesitant. We don't answer the question of why in this study, but we do document important differences. And those differences in vaccine hesitancy are really important to understand if we want our vaccination programs to ultimately be equitable and to start reducing some of the health disparities that we've seen rather than exacerbating them.

And what did your study find? Who are the people who are reluctant to get vaccinated? We've heard this being politicized, but what are you finding?

What we found is that, unsurprisingly, there are differences in vaccine hesitancy across groups. While about 21% at the time of the study reported being unlikely or very unlikely to get the vaccine, that percentage was a lot higher for households that had an income less than $25,000, for Black or African-American respondents, for those who had some college rather than a four-year college degree, as well as higher rates of hesitancy among those who reported that they did not fear infection and those who reported low levels of trust in vaccines in general.

We've heard a lot in the past about hesitancy, especially among African-Americans given U.S. history. Is that still a factor here in Arkansas?

We did find that Black and African-American respondents had among the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy for the COVID-19 vaccine. The reasons why, as you sort of nodded to, are a lot of folks are pointing towards histories of medical racism, things that create distrust in medical professions and institutions.

There is also the question for future research that still needs to be investigated further about how experiences of discrimination and medical racism today might be influencing those attitudes. We don't settle that question in this study, but it's something that we're very interested in and plan on researching in future work.

And you mentioned lower income families are less likely to get vaccinated. Why is that?

Well, there could be a variety of reasons, and there could be concerns about cost barriers in terms of transportation, concerns about being able to take time off of work to either: A, go get the vaccine or, B, to recover from some of the moderate-to-mild side effects that have been reported. Folks do know that they might need a day or two off to rest if their reaction is strong. So, the study really launches us into those new questions rather than completely answering why certain groups might have higher rates of hesitancy.

How will the results of this study be used?

So, following this study, some of the efforts that the research did spark was UAMS did develop a mobile vaccination clinic with the intent to make vaccinations more convenient, and we have been partnering with some community-based and faith-based organizations hoping to build on existing trust and identifying types of communication and messaging that might work best for each community. Our team of researchers here in the Office of Community Health and Research has been meeting regularly with community members to get input, as well as their feedback on findings from our research.

When was the research conducted and how many people did you speak with?

The study was conducted in July and August of 2020, so this was before a vaccine was available. What we did was ask people how likely they would be to get the vaccine if it were available to them today. And we ended up surveying over 1,200 respondents in Arkansas.

Recently over the last few months. Gov. Hutchinson has been traveling around the state holding town hall meetings where he's really reaching out to local leaders. In particular, I've noticed him calling out ministers saying, you need to encourage your congregation to get vaccinated. Just based on your experiences, what do you think of the tactic that the governor is taking to really try and convince people to get vaccinated by going into these communities and taking questions and trying to talk with the local leaders?

Well, what I can speak to most is that local leaders and trusted sources of information, community members are going to play an important role because people want to hear information from folks that they know and they trust. And so, if the governor's town halls do encourage those leaders to really spread that message and encourage others, then I could see it being a potentially effective approach. Trusted messengers are going to be a big part of what helps folks who are hesitant overcome some of that hesitancy.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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