For five months, Chris Brummett has ignored his wife’s pleas that he get a coronavirus vaccine. He cares even less that federal regulators finally issued a long-awaited approval for one of them.
“My wife is on me all the time to do it,” said Brummett, 43, from Jackson County, Indiana, who followed news this week of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine. But Brummett, a libertarian critical of both the Biden and Trump administrations, said he’s struggling to trust any government messages about the virus. “I guess for now it’s a no for me.”
Tyler McCann, 24, of Augusta, Georgia, also remains a skeptic, citing the low risk of complications for people his age. “If I get it,” McCann says of COVID-19, “I will blame myself entirely. It’ll be my fault. But until then … I don’t see the necessity, and with how politicized it’s been, I’m just annoyed with it.”
Mark Anthony Garcia, 49, of Ingleside, Texas, ponders new questions since the FDA’s approval. “If the vaccine’s that good, why are we having breakthroughs?” said Garcia, referencing reports of coronavirus cases among fully vaccinated Americans. “They’re blaming [the pandemic] on the unvaccinated, but the vaccinated are spreading it too.”
Federal officials have sought for months to persuade holdouts like Brummett, McCann and Garcia, who are among the roughly 85 million still-unvaccinated eligible Americans — a largely entrenched population despite a range of incentives, political appeals and now mandates to get the shots. But hopes that many of those skeptics would be swayed by vaccine approval appear to have been unrealistic, according to interviews with 16 unvaccinated Americans — including six who said earlier this year that they would be more likely to get vaccinated if FDA approved the shots.
The FDA’s approval “increased the likelihood” of getting vaccinated, said Derrick M., a 27-year-old who just left active-duty military service and like several, spoke with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity for fear he might be harassed. “But at this time, I’m still not planning to get it.”
The sheer number of still-skeptical Americans — and their willingness to shift the goal posts on what might convince them — underscores that vaccination mandates are essential, said Robert Murphy, an infectious-disease physician and executive director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Thousands of employers have already imposed vaccine requirements on workers, with a slew of additional organizations, ranging from the Pentagon to CVS Health, citing the FDA approval when announcing their own mandates this week. While regulators had previously authorized the shots for emergency use, the agency’s formal approval is expected to provide further legal cover for companies that had debated requirements.
“That’s what’s going to do it,” Murphy said. “If they realize that they’re going to lose their job, they’re going to really think twice whether they really want to avoid the vaccine.”
Only a single unvaccinated person interviewed by The Post said the FDA approval had changed his mind — but he’s not eligible to get vaccinated until November, because he received Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment for a recent coronavirus infection.
“I can’t get it for 90 days according to my doctor ’cause of the antibodies I got now from the corona,” said Cliff Barnett, 67, of Mobile, Alabama, who was hospitalized for five days earlier this month.
Barnett said he did not regret waiting to get vaccinated, despite a case of coronavirus that was so severe he collapsed to the floor when he first walked into the hospital two weeks ago. “It could’ve been worse,” he said.
Public health experts had eagerly awaited the FDA’s action for months, with anticipation mounting in June after the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 31% of unvaccinated adults said they would be more likely to get vaccinated if the FDA granted full approval to one of the vaccines.
That statistic and similar predictions were widely touted this week by politicians and pundits. The government’s top-infectious disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, predicted on NPR on Monday that at least 18 million vaccine skeptics “will now step forward and get vaccinated.”
“If you’re one of the millions of Americans who said that they will not get the shot … until it has full and final approval of the FDA, it has now happened,” President Biden said Monday. “The moment you’ve been waiting for is here, and it’s time for you to go get your vaccination and get it today.”
But an expert who oversaw the Kaiser Family Foundation poll said she didn’t expect that FDA approval alone would change minds.
“Most people have multiple reasons and concerns about getting vaccinated — it’s not just one thing,” said Liz Hamel, a Kaiser Family Foundation director. “It may take some time for people to think about it.”
Hamel and her colleagues are planning to survey Americans again after Labor Day to gauge reaction to the FDA’s approval, she said.
Meanwhile, vaccine opponents are attacking the FDA’s credibility, with some exhuming previously debunked claims about the agency’s track record and promoting them on social media.
“FDA Approval of Pfizer Shot Does Not Mean Safe,” Liberty Counsel, a conservative advocacy organization that’s fought against vaccination mandates, claimed in a statement to reporters.
Jennifer Bridges, a nurse in Houston, Texas, had told The Post in May that she didn’t trust the vaccines because they lacked full approval. But now that the Pfizer-BioNTech shot has checked that box, Bridges said she and her allies don’t believe regulators did their due diligence.
“Everybody who didn’t want the shot is literally appalled by the fact that it got FDA approved,” Bridges said on Tuesday, arguing that the FDA had rushed to approve the shots despite evidence of their waning efficacy.
Bridges, who was fired from Houston Methodist in June for refusing to comply with its vaccination mandate, said she’s now helping organize other workers — from flight attendants to health care workers — who don’t want to get vaccinated “so they can help fight mandates” as a team.
For some unvaccinated Americans, the FDA approval is the latest in a series of actions and appeals that have fallen flat, or further antagonized them.
Garcia, for instance, said incentive campaigns to get vaccinated, like state lotteries offering millions of dollars in giveaways, undermined his faith in the vaccines. “I feel it’s a tactic to coerce people,” he added. “I felt like I was in Vegas — ‘hey, come to our place, we’ll give you free food and a hotel room.'”
Nearly all of the people who spoke with The Post also chafed at the idea of vaccination mandates, calling them an infringement of their liberties.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said Belinda Bowman-Cook, who lives in Washington, D.C., and declined to give her vaccination status. “There’s plenty of people out here with cancer and other illnesses. If they decided that they don’t want treatment for cancer, you don’t go and say ‘if you don’t take this right here, you’re going to die.'”
But health experts stressed that the situation is different with an infectious disease where it’s everyone’s shared responsibility to keep one another safe. “If only that person was at risk for getting infected, OK, let them go get infected — that’s their choice,” said Murphy, the infectious-disease doctor. “But they’re infecting other people [with coronavirus], and that’s not fair.”
“We don’t let people drive 100 miles an hour on the highway — we make everybody wear a seat belt,” he added. “We make you put your kids in secure seats in the cars. We even make you buy insurance for your car.”
As some employers weigh whether to require workers to get vaccinated, those who have already done so defend them as essential — and effective. Houston Methodist, for instance, saw more than 97% of workers comply with its vaccination mandate, with about 2% obtaining exemptions and 1% leaving the organization.
“After I announced the mandate at the end of July, the overwhelming responses I got were, ‘thank you, thank you for keeping us safe, I now feel safer coming to work,'” said Janice E. Nevin, CEO of Delaware-based Christiana Care, the largest private employer in the state.
Nevin also said that she believed the FDA approval had sparked more vaccine interest. Thirty-six people turned up at an employee vaccination event held on Christiana Care’s Newark, Delaware, campus on Tuesday, up from about 25 people at previous events this month, staff said.
“One of our caregivers brought her daughter in,” Nevin said. “Her daughter’s starting nursing school, and is now feeling very comfortable about getting vaccinated.”
The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.