Kansas is more COVID-19 vaccine-skeptical than the U.S. as a whole, census data shows
Kansans are more skeptical of getting the COVID-19 vaccine than the country as a whole, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows, underscoring the challenge ahead of public health officials, even as an increasing number of residents are getting the shots.
The figures also come amid concern that the decision by federal authorities to halt the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will make more residents uncomfortable with the shots, even though officials underscore the move is a sign of how the system is working to keep individuals safe.
Over half of residents not sure about getting vaccinated
Roughly 46% of the state's residents say they will definitely get a COVID-19 shot when it's available, the Census Bureau data shows. That checks in slightly below the 51% of Americans who say they will get immunized.
About 37% of the state's residents have already gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. On Friday, the state reported an increase of 541 COVID-19 cases since Wednesday, as well as a rise of nine deaths.
Four weeks ago the number of individuals who said they would get the vaccine in Kansas was higher, at 49%.
Lee Norman, secretary of health and environment, acknowledged during a virtual media briefing Tuesday challenges remained in convincing a good chunk of residents to become vaccinated — but said that most of those who remain skeptical are a part of the "moveable middle," who can be swayed with the right messaging.
Brett Bricker, a professor at the University of Kansas’ Department of Communication Studies who researches vaccination messaging, agreed, noting the remaining group of Kansans who are less enthusiastic about getting the vaccine are not a monolith.
"I don't think that much of that 54% is completely in the anti-vaccine camp," Bricker said. "If we see 54%, we need to be asking questions about how to parse that group ... because what messages work for particular groups within that are is going to be very, very unique to the demographic characteristics of that subset."
Efforts under way to target communities of color
This is especially true for communities of color in Kansas. Black, Latino and American Indian residents remain less likely than their white peers to have received the vaccine, according to KDHE data.
Wednesday marked the first meeting of the state's COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Taskforce and participants quickly agreed trust is a barrier among communities of color for the vaccine uptake, with those groups more skeptical of state government as a whole.
Improving the situation will require conversations starting at the grassroots level, officials say.
"The people that they have distrust from, that’s not who they’re going to want to hear from," said Rev. Tony Carter, who leads Salem Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan. "They want to hear from individuals that they have established relationships with and established trust with to walk through that.”
The scope of the problem going forward is apparent in a separate dataset compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outlining the most vaccine-hesitant counties in Kansas, which run the gamut from rural to urban. Those areas are Pottawatomie, Cherokee, Geary, Montgomery, Labette, Neosho, Riley and Wyandotte counties, where 22% of residents are estimated to be hesitant.
Will Johnson & Johnson pause make matters worse?
The pause on using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could complicate things further. The CDC and Food and Drug Administrated announced the new guidelines Tuesday “out of an abundance of caution,” after six individuals developed blood clots as a possible side effect.
That could raise alarm among those who were already concerned about side effects from the shots or who were unsure about the regulatory process used to approve the vaccines last year.
Norman acknowledged it would mean KDHE would "have to do more fine-tuning and optimization," with state and local health departments aiming to swap out Pfizer and Moderna doses for J&J shots that were taken out of commission.
The Johnson & Johnson shots had elements making them more attractive for those who were concerned about getting the vaccine, he noted, including the fact that they require only one dose.
"It does make it more difficult and I can fully understand why someone riding the fence anyway would take a pause to reconsider whether they should get it," Norman said. "That’s a normal, informed, human response. It does make it a problem for our vaccine rollout."
But as Kansas aims to win over the remaining population who has yet to be immunized, Bricker underscored that the country as a whole is underprepared to tackle the skepticism problem.
Much of the attention at the federal level was on pushing out adequate supply and he said not enough consideration was given to whether individuals were interested in getting the shots in the first place.
"There was never sufficient attention paid to the demand side of this," Bricker said. "Do people actually want this? Will people trust it? Will we be able to get it to the communities that do want it and try to induce demand in other ways? And I think the fact that states are just kind of now coming around to that is pretty disappointing, to be honest."