What Covid-19 Vaccine Skeptics Have in Common

For years, scientists and doctors have treated vaccine skepticism as a knowledge problem. If patients were hesitant to get vaccinated, the thinking went, they simply needed more information.

But as public health officials now work to convince Americans to get Covid-19 vaccines as quickly as possible, new social science research suggests that a set of deeply held beliefs is at the heart of many people’s resistance, complicating efforts to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.

“The instinct from the medical community was, ‘If only we could educate them,’” said Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, who studies vaccine skepticism. “It was patronizing and, as it turns out, not true.”

Skeptics were also twice as likely to care a lot about the “purity” of their bodies and their minds. They disapprove of things they consider disgusting, and the mind-set defies neat categorization: It could be religious — halal or kosher — or entirely secular, like people who care deeply about toxins in foods or in the environment.

Scientists have found similar patterns among skeptics in Australia and Israel, and in a broad sample of vaccine-hesitant people in 24 countries in 2018.

“At the root are these moral intuitions — these gut feelings — and they are very strong,” said Jeff Huntsinger, a social psychologist at Loyola University Chicago who studies emotion and decision-making and collaborated with Dr. Omer’s team. “It’s very hard to override them with facts and information. You can’t reason with them in that way.”

These qualities tend to predominate among conservatives but they are present among liberals too. They are also present among people with no politics at all.

Kasheem Delesbore, a warehouse worker in northeastern Pennsylvania, is neither conservative nor liberal. He does not consider himself political and has never voted. But he is skeptical of the vaccines — along with many institutions of American power.

Mr. Delesbore, 26, has seen information online that a vaccine might harm his body. He is not sure what to make of it. But his faith in God gives him confidence: Whatever happens is God’s will. There is little he can do to influence it. (Manufacturers of the three vaccines approved for emergency use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they are safe.)

The vaccines have also raised a fundamental question of power. There are many things in Mr. Delesbore’s life that he does not control. Not the schedule at the warehouse where he works. Or the way he is treated by the customers at his other job, a Burger King. The decision about whether to get vaccinated, he believes, should be one of them.

“I have that choice to decide whether I put something in my own body,” Mr. Delesbore said. “Anybody should.”

“There’s a whole world of secrets and stuff that we don’t see in our everyday lives,” Mr. Delesbore said. “It’s politics, it’s entertainment, it’s history. Everything is a facade.”

The moral preference for liberty and individual rights that the social psychologists found to be common among skeptics has been strengthened by the country’s deepening political polarization. Branden Mirro, a Republican in Nazareth, Pa., has been skeptical of nearly everything concerning the pandemic. He believes that mask requirements impinge on his rights and does not plan to get vaccinated. In fact, he sees the very timing of the virus as suspicious.

“This whole thing was a sham,” he said. “They planned it to cause mass panic and get Trump out of office.”

Mr. Mirro, who is 30, grew up in a large Italian-American family in northeastern Pennsylvania. His father owned a landscaping business and later invested in real estate. His mother battled a yearslong addiction to methamphetamine. He said she died this year with fentanyl in her bloodstream.

From an early age, politics was an outlet that brought meaning and importance. He has volunteered for presidential campaigns, watched inaugurations, and gone to rallies for Donald J. Trump. He even went to Washington on Jan. 6, the day of the riot at the U.S. Capitol.

He said that he went because he wanted to stand up for his freedoms, and that he did not go inside the Capitol or support the violence that happened. He also said he believed that Democrats have been hypocritical in how they responded to that event, compared with the unrest in cities last summer following the murder of George Floyd.

Democrats, he said, used to fight for things that were good. He has a picture of John F. Kennedy up on his wall. But they have become dangerous, he said, “canceling” people and creating racial divisions by what he sees as a relentless emphasis on racial differences.

“This isn’t the country I grew up in,” he said. “I have a love for this country, but it’s turning into something ugly.”

Vaccine skeptics are sometimes just as wary of the medical establishment as they are about the government.

Brittany Richey, a tutor in Las Vegas, does not want to get one of the vaccines because she does not trust the drug companies that produced them. She pointed to studies that she said described pharmaceutical companies paying doctors to suppress unfavorable trial results. She keeps a folder on her computer of them.

Ms. Richey said that when she was 19, she was put into a line of girls waiting for the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical and other cancers, after a routine doctor’s appointment. She said she did not fully understand what the shot was and why she was being asked to get it.

“That’s not informed consent, that’s coercion,” said Ms. Richey, who is now 33.