Will America’s vaccine hesitancy stymie the COVID shot rollout?

March 1, 2021, 9:03 PM UTC

For decades, medical experts across the globe have been ringing the warning bell about vaccine hesitancy and the damage it can do to public health. That was well before the COVID pandemic reared its head. But the concerns remain, as leaders from IBM Watson Health, Henry Schein, and Kroger Health confirmed during a Fortune Brainstorm Health panel on the COVID vaccine rollout.

Panelists William J. Kassler, chief medical officer at IBM Watson Health, Allison Neale, executive director of public policy at Henry Schein, and Marc Watkins, chief medical officer at Kroger Health, discussed the lessons we’ve learned to date on the best ways to get shots into arms—and the obstacles to that mission.

Fortune editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf raised the critical issue of vaccine hesitancy during the conversation. “About 14 million people say they will not get a vaccine, if you believe in the polling on this,” he said, going on to note that tens of millions of others are on the fence about getting a COVID shot and that millions of children likely wouldn’t qualify for one well into 2021.

This potential cascade could prevent the U.S. from achieving herd immunity, the cornerstone of an immunization campaign that necessitates upwards of 70% of a population to be vaccinated.

That’s a problem that cuts across demographic lines, but in particular among the minority communities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID, as Watkins of Kroger Health explained.

“There’s a real hesitancy when it comes to some populations, especially around Black and brown and underrepresented minorities,” he said. “It’s probably a panacea to think that everyone in the country will get the vaccine,” noting the dismal number of Americans who get a flu vaccine in any given year.

But Watkins is still optimistic that far more people will get a COVID shot because of the degree of death and disruption to daily life wrought by the pandemic.

“This issue of education and trust-building is really critical,” said Neale of Henry Schein. It’s a fundamental communication issue, in her view, and this was echoed by IBM’s Kassler.

One recurring theme of the pandemic? The importance of educating the public that just because the currently available COVID vaccines were developed within a year doesn’t mean they are unproven science. In fact, as Neale explained, they are based on decades of preliminary research which could then be leveraged to address the moment.

The good news is, despite the obstacles, recent polling data has shown that fewer and fewer Americans are unwilling to get a COVID vaccine. But the educational process will still loom large in the coming months.

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