It comes down to trust: Study shows progress on vaccine hesitancy in Detroit 

By: - September 7, 2021 6:00 am

Spirit of Detroit | Susan J. Demas

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its 18th month, Detroit still lags behind the state average for COVID-19 vaccinations.

The city’s vaccination rate is 43.1% for those aged 12 and older, significantly lower than the state percentage of 60.6%. It’s also far lower than 70.7% for Oakland County, which borders the Motor City. 

But a University of Michigan survey shows vaccine hesitancy is surmountable. More than one in three residents (34%) who reported being unlikely to get vaccinated between January and March have since received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“Our data call attention to opportunities to continue increasing vaccination levels across the city,” said Jeffrey Morenoff, one of the faculty research leads for U of M’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study (DMACS), a professor of public policy and sociology, and research professor at the university’s Institute for Social Research. “Many residents who told us in previous waves that they were unlikely to be vaccinated have in fact gotten a vaccine shot, suggesting that there is a persuadable population. We also find very few residents who start but don’t complete their vaccine course, which means if we can get people in the pipeline we can keep building immunity in our communities.”

Still, there was no shortage of sobering data from the survey of 1,898 residents that was conducted between June 2 and July 9. To represent the views of the entire city, survey responses were weighted to match Detroit’s population demographics.

Nearly eight out of 10 Detroiters who have not received any doses of the coronavirus vaccine cited concerns about the safety of the vaccine among their reasons for not getting jabbed.

Horace Sheffield III photo

A similar number of unvaccinated Detroiters, 78%, also reported that concerns about side effects were among the reasons they had not gotten vaccinated.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III of Detroit fought and beat coronavirus during the first wave in spring 2020. Since that time, he has encouraged fellow Detroit residents to be tested for COVID-19 and to take the vaccine. He has provided his community center on Detroit’s west side as a site. 

“The prospect of death [from COVID] is greater than the potential risk of safety [from vaccines],” said Sheffield. 

A surge in the Delta variant has resulted in a new wave of cases of COVID-19 across the state. As of Friday, there have been 955,640 COVID-19 cases in Michigan and 20,367 people have died. In Detroit, there have been 54,455 cases and 2,334 deaths.

Detroit officials in recent weeks have become more creative in efforts to get more people vaccinated. Anyone who drives a city resident to a site to receive a dose is eligible to receive a $50 gift card.

The city of Detroit has issued a news release recommending that everyone, including those who are fully vaccinated, wear a mask indoors in order to maximize protection from the highly contagious Delta variant. 

“We are encouraging Detroiters to mask up indoors out of an abundance of caution,” said Denise Fair, chief public health officer. “We want everyone to stay safe and healthy.”

“The simple fact is that if more people were vaccinated, we would not be at as great a risk,” she added. “It’s because of the unvaccinated that vaccinated Detroiters need to be concerned and take every precaution they can.”

In general, unvaccinated Detroiters surveyed were far less likely to say they trust the government’s ability to ensure the safety of the vaccine (51%), than those who have already been vaccinated (6%). 

University of Michigan study on Detroiters and the COVID-19 vaccine

When asked about the single, “main reason” Detroiters have not been vaccinated, safety concerns were the most common reason offered (29%). Concern about side effects was a slightly less important factor, with 22% of respondents saying it was the “main reason” they had not gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.

The U of M survey also asked respondents whom they trust for information about COVID-19. Among unvaccinated Detroiters, news media were, by far, the least trusted sources for information on COVID-19. Only 10% of unvaccinated Detroiters said they placed high trust in the news media for this information. On the other hand, about one-third of unvaccinated Detroiters reported that they trusted their doctors a great deal for information on COVID-19.

“With COVID-19 cases rising again in Michigan and public health officials warning about a pandemic among the unvaccinated, these data highlight that trust, and not access, is the main factor deterring Detroiters from getting vaccinated at this stage,” said Elisabeth Gerber, another faculty research lead for DMACS and U of M professor of public policy and political science. “These findings also illustrate that more personal appeals to get vaccinated are more likely to be persuasive than mass appeals through news media.”


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.