More than 40% of Republicans in Louisiana said they don't plan on getting vaccinated against COVID-19, revealing a starkly partisan divide when compared to similar apathy among just 13% of Democrats, according to the results of a poll conducted by LSU's Public Policy Research Lab.
The data also found that nearly 1-in-3 adults aren't interested in getting vaccinated, fueling concerns that even with enough vaccine doses to go around, the state could fall short of reaching the uptake necessary to achieve herd immunity and end the pandemic.
Seventy-eight percent of Democrats and 49% of Republicans said they had either already received their vaccine or planned to do so once it became available, according to the poll, which included telephone interviews with 781 adults randomly selected from across the state. The sample was collected between January 4 and March 1 and has a margin of error of 6.4%.
"Given what we've seen over the past year, it's not surprising that vaccines have become politically polarizing," said Mike Henderson, an assistant professor at LSU who spearheaded the poll. He added that similar levels of partisanship were found in questions regarding the state's mask mandate.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, on Tuesday said he didn't understand "how one's political philosophy interferes with the process of deciding to avail oneself" of the vaccination, noting that the vaccine's swift development was partly an achievement of former president Donald Trump, a Republican.
Some members of the state's Republican congressional delegation are joining in to sway the public towards getting the vaccine. Sen. John Kennedy recently filmed an online advertisement promoting vaccinations.
Louisiana ranks 38th in percentage of population fully vaccinated.
Julia Letlow, a Republican who was elected to represent the 5th Congressional District, made headlines earlier this week for endorsing the vaccine on national television. Her husband, Luke Letlow, initially won the seat, but died of COVID-19 days before being sworn in.
"I'm a huge proponent of the vaccine. It has lifesaving capabilities. And I want to encourage anybody out there who's eligible to go ahead and get that vaccine. It's so important," Letlow said Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said Tuesday he was waiting until vaccines were widely available before getting his own jab, but said he had no doubts the vaccine was "very safe and effective." He added that he'll make his own vaccination a public event as an encouragement to others.
"Some people might be under the false impression that it was rushed," Scalise said. "There was no rushing or cutting corners. We probably tested this vaccine, multiple vaccines, on more people than we’ve seen before. Tens of thousands of Americans signed up to be tested just for the vaccine."
Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health director, predicts that the vaccine will become less political and more normalized as more and more people get inoculated. He attributed some of the partisan divide to differing views on the role of government. Initially, with supply so limited, the state had a big role in the rollout, but as more doses become available, that grip will loosen.
"Aside from the tiny, tiny subset of individuals, who might be labeled antivaxxers, in general, vaccines are not highly political. What is political sometimes is the extent to which governments are advancing it," Kanter said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, said he was a fan of the vaccine, but echoed Kanters' theory in a March interview with The Hill, a D.C. trade publication, that hesitancy for some may stem from distrust of the government.
“People don’t trust the government, and they shouldn’t. It’s in our nature to be skeptical about those things,” said Johnson. “I’ve been satisfied with the science that we’ve been shown as members that the vaccine is safe and apparently effective. I think, for me, the benefit outweighs the risk."
Another survey on vaccine hesitancy published Thursday by the Louisiana Public Health Institute, LPHI, found that about 30% of women in their childbearing years – between the age of 18 and 44 – don't intend on getting vaccinated, and an even larger percentage are unsure or weary of the jab.
Louisiana, time is ticking.
Dr. Beth Nauman, the managing director at LPHI, attributed that hesitancy to persistent — and untrue — claims on social media that the vaccine causes infertility in women. There is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including those targeting COVID-19, cause fertility problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The non-scientific survey from LPHI polled 1,096 individuals and skewed toward younger, more educated participants, likely because it was conducted online and excluded those who many not have easy access to the internet. It was conducted between February 4 and March 1.
Researchers compared those responses to a previous survey from June 2020 and found statistically significant decreases in hesitancy in the public health regions that include New Orleans and Shreveport. Meanwhile, they found increasing hesitancy in the region that includes Houma.
Both the LPHI and LSU survey found that a sizable number of young people are hesitant or uninterested in getting vaccinated. The LSU poll found that 44% of those aged 30 to 49 didn’t plan on taking the vaccine, with comparable levels of apathy in the 18 to 29 age range.
Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, associate professor of epidemiology at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans, said that's not surprising given that young people are at a lower risk of severe illness and have fewer interactions with health care providers. Still, she said it'll be important to reach them if the state hopes to inoculate at least 75% of the population to achieve herd immunity.
West Baton Rouge Parish will be holding a mass COVID-19 vaccination event next week in Port Allen.
More than 1.2 million people in Louisiana — 26% of the state’s total population — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. More than 720,000 people have been fully immunized. Next week, Louisiana expects to receive around 170,000 doses. On Monday, eligibility was opened to anyone age 16 or older.
Emily Woodruff and Tyler Bridges contributed to this report.