By Shereen Siewert and The Associated Press

Less than 1% of COVID-19 deaths in May were among fully vaccinated people, according to newly released government data, while “breakthrough” infections in fully vaccinated people hovers at around 1.1%. But skeptics remain unconvinced that the vaccine is safe or necessary.

Vaccine hesitancy is especially high among some health care workers – but not among physicians. A June report from the American Medical Association shows 96% of U.S. physicians are fully vaccinated. Yet, a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2,500 hospitals across the country shows about one in four people who work in hospitals are not vaccinated. Among the nation’s largest hospitals, the percentage of unvaccinated health care workers appears to be even larger, about one in three.

Scroll through social media and you’ll find plenty of of vaccine skepticism. A Facebook group for nurses, for example, has dozens of comments expressing skepticism about the vaccine, along with vague rumors about side effects. While certainly, some anti-vaxxers are deep state conspiracists, listening to the reasons why people are avoiding the shot shows just where government messaging has missed the mark at teaching the public about the effectiveness and safety record of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Facebook Nurses group page screen shot

A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll of 1,715 U.S. adults conducted last week found:

  • Just 29% of unvaccinated Americans believe the virus poses a greater risk to their health than the vaccines, while 37% say they believe the vaccines represent a greater health risk than the virus. Put another way, more people say the vaccine is riskier than the virus. After millions of vaccinations administered globally, the only serious reactions that have surfaced have been extremely rare cases of heart inflammation and even more rare allergic reactions. Even those unlikely reactions are usually mild.
  • 37% percent of unvaccinated Americans say they are “concerned about long-term side effects” of the vaccines. One would suppose that the only way to overcome this concern would be to wait for a long time to see whether their concerns were well-founded or not. By then, the virus will have continued to spread and mutate.
  • 17% of the unvaccinated said, “I don’t trust the government.” This week, a number of GOP leaders and influencers started adding their voices to the chorus of people urging doubters to get vaccinated.
  • 16% said, “The vaccines are too new,” apparently referring to the mRNA technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
  • And 11% say, “The FDA hasn’t fully approved the vaccines yet,” which refers to the emergency order under which the vaccines are being distributed. In addition to the tens of thousands of vaccines administered in drug trials a year ago, we now have the real-life experience of hundreds of millions of people who have gotten the vaccines. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to consider full approval of the vaccines beginning in a few months.

About 63% of all vaccine-eligible Americans — those 12 and older — have received at least one dose, and 53% are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. While vaccine remains scarce in much of the world, the U.S. supply is so abundant and demand has slumped so dramatically that shots sit unused.

Ross Bagne, a 68-year-old small-business owner in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was eligible for the vaccine in early February but didn’t get it. He died June 4, infected and unvaccinated, after spending more than three weeks in the hospital, his lungs filling with fluid. He was unable to swallow because of a stroke.

“He never went out, so he didn’t think he would catch it,” said his grieving sister, Karen McKnight. She wondered: “Why take the risk of not getting vaccinated?”

A new Yale study estimates that covid vaccines have prevented approximately 279,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. The Yale study presents these striking numbers:

  • If only half as many vaccinations had been administered there would have been more than 120,000 additional deaths and 450,000 additional hospitalizations, according to the researchers.
  • As of July 2, the United States has administered more than 328 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and 67% of adults have received at least one dose, the researchers said. The number of cases, meanwhile, has fallen from over 300,000 per day at the pandemic’s peak in January to less than 20,000 daily in mid-June.

But the preventable deaths will continue, experts predict, with unvaccinated pockets of the nation experiencing outbreaks in the fall and winter. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, said modeling suggests the nation will hit 1,000 deaths per day again next year.

The stories of unvaccinated people dying may convince some people they should get the shots, but young adults — the group least likely to be vaccinated — may be motivated more by a desire to protect their loved ones, said David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University’s school of public health in the nation’s capital.

Others need paid time off to get the shots and deal with any side effects, Michaels said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration this month began requiring health care employers, including hospitals and nursing homes, to provide such time off. But Michaels, who headed OSHA under President Barack Obama, said the agency should have gone further and applied the rule to meat and poultry plants and other food operations as well as other places with workers at risk.

Bagne, who lived alone, ran a business helping people incorporate their companies in Wyoming for the tax advantages. He was winding down the business, planning to retire, when he got sick, emailing his sister in April about an illness that had left him dizzy and disoriented. 

“Whatever it was. That bug took a LOT out of me,” he wrote.

As his health deteriorated, a neighbor finally persuaded him to go to the hospital.

“Why was the messaging in his state so unclear that he didn’t understand the importance of the vaccine? He was a very bright guy,” his sister said. “I wish he’d gotten the vaccine, and I’m sad he didn’t understand how it could prevent him from getting COVID.”