The results of a statewide survey conducted by Alaska’s health department in March offer some insight into Alaskans’ attitudes related to COVID-19 vaccines and will be used to inform public messaging, state health officials said this week.
The results, which were published Thursday in a report compiled by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, indicated about a 36% vaccine hesitancy rate — meaning they were unsure or undecided about whether to get vaccinated — among the more than 1,000 survey respondents with Alaska area codes who answered questions via text.
The survey data showed that over half of Alaskans who fell into the “vaccine hesitant” category were open to learning more about the vaccines before deciding whether to get vaccinated.
The results also showed that “the No. 1 most trusted source of information about COVID-19 among respondents who were hesitant but open to learning more is family and friends, and that was by a significant margin,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, during a call with reporters Thursday.
The next highest trusted source was their health care provider, McLaughlin added. “So those two sources were by far in the lead,” he said.
The top reasons the survey respondents gave for not getting vaccinated were concerns about side effects and safety, and “the perception that the individual was at low risk for getting COVID-19 or that COVID-19 is not a serious problem,” the report said.
Other reasons respondents gave included concerns about the speed with which the vaccines were developed and mistrust toward “government officials, media, and/or pharmaceutical companies.” Additionally, the survey showed some weren’t getting vaccinated because of vaccine misconceptions or conspiracy theories, as labeled by survey coders, not respondents.
Alaska in March became the first state in the country to open up vaccinations to anyone 16 and older who lives or works in the state, and early on in its vaccine rollout, the state reported one of the highest per capita vaccination rates in the country. By Friday, over 55% of all eligible Alaskans had opted to get a shot.
But vaccination rates across Alaska have varied widely by community, and the pace of vaccination has slowed, state data shows. Some officials have worried that vaccine hesitancy in some communities could prevent life from going back to normal quickly.
By Friday, Alaska had fallen to 26th place in per capita vaccination rates among all 50 states, territories and Washington, D.C., according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One key survey takeaway that’s helping inform the state’s messaging is simple: the need to get the word out about eligibility, said Sarah Aho, who was one of the researchers who helped compile and publish the report.
“In our survey, 83% knew they were eligible,” she said. “That means there were still 17% that thought they weren’t eligible or were still unsure,” she said.
The report’s conclusion was that “Alaskans still have questions about COVID-19 vaccines, and many people who say they are unsure about getting vaccinated or do not plan to get vaccinated are open to learning more,” the researchers wrote.
“Vaccine providers and public health workers should meet people where they are, both in terms of readiness to vaccinate and on media platforms they most frequently use,” the report said. “Questions may be rooted in fear or distrust and should be acknowledged and supported, rather than dismissed,” the report said.