The American public's understanding of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines may have been put to the test in recent weeks as national public health leaders openly debated whether a booster shot is needed for the general population. Meanwhile, a large gap in vaccination rates persists between Democrats and Republicans, possibly reflecting partisans' different views on the relative risks of COVID-19 versus the vaccines.
In August, Gallup surveyed over 3,000 U.S. adults on their understanding of the likelihood of hospitalization after contracting COVID-19 among those who have versus have not been vaccinated. The results show that most Americans overstate the risk of hospitalization for both groups: 92% overstate the risk that unvaccinated people will be hospitalized, and 62% overstate the risk for vaccinated people. At the same time, U.S. adults are fairly accurate at estimating the effectiveness of vaccines at preventing hospitalization, with the median respondent putting it at 80%.
Democrats provide much higher and more accurate vaccine efficacy estimates than Republicans (88% vs. 50%), and unvaccinated Republicans have a median vaccine efficacy of 0%, compared with 73% for vaccinated Republicans. The results suggest that the low vaccine uptake among Republicans may be driven, at least in part, by an inaccurate understanding of the published data on vaccine effectiveness
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, political affiliation has been a strong predictor of attitudes and behaviors related to disease risks and mitigation. Gallup's monthly tracking of adult (18+) vaccination rates in the U.S. reveals a deep political divide. As of September 2021, 92% of Democrats reported having had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine compared with 56% of Republicans.
Line graph. U.S. adults' vaccination rates, by political affiliation from January 2021 through September 20201. In September 2021, 92% of Democrats, 68% of independents and 56% of Republicans had been vaccinated for COVD-19.
Previous Gallup research has found that the American public has a poor understanding of the true risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and that misperceptions vary by political party. In December 2020, through the Franklin Templeton-Gallup Economics of Recovery Study, we asked 5,000 U.S. adults: "As far as you know, what percentage of people who have been infected by the coronavirus needed to be hospitalized?" Only 18% provided the correct answer, which at that time was between 1% and 5%, and a higher percentage of Republicans (26%) gave the correct response than did Democrats (just 10%). Likewise, experimental research from Gallup and Franklin Templeton found that providing people information about high vaccine efficacy led to greater acceptance of the vaccine.
Data from Gallup's most recent COVID-19 Panel survey, in August, is especially relevant to the public's understanding of vaccine efficacy; in recent weeks, the Biden administration, health officials, and many in the media have expressed concerns about breakthrough infections stemming from the Delta variant of SARS-CoV2, pointing to rising infections, hospitalizations and deaths. On Aug. 18, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was making plans for administering booster shots to people who are already vaccinated, pending FDA approval. This caused some debate among experts. For example, on September 13, medical scholars published an analysis in a leading journal concluding that "Current evidence does not appear to show a need for boosting in the general population." Four days later, on September 17, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel rejected Pfizer's application for broad emergency use of a third dose, opting instead to restrict such authorization for only select groups of higher-risk persons.
In light of these debates, Gallup tested public understanding of the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines by asking 3,158 U.S. adults two questions during a field period of August 16-22. The items tested respondents' overall assessment of COVID hospitalization risks facing vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, allowing researchers to calculate the implied efficacy of vaccines.
The items were the following:
- As far as you know, what percentage of unvaccinated people have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus?
- As far as you know, what percentage of fully vaccinated people have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus?
The implied efficacy of vaccines is calculated by subtracting the second response from the first and dividing by the first. If a respondent answers that 10% of unvaccinated people have been hospitalized from COVID and 5% of vaccinated people, this implies a vaccine efficacy of 50%.
How the Public Understands Hospitalization Risk
For both vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, very few adults reported a correct answer, which is less than one percent. See the discussion in the appendix for details about the correct hospitalization rates and efficacy estimates. Only 8% of U.S. adults gave correct answers for the unvaccinated population and 38% for the vaccinated population.
Partisanship was a strong predictor of accuracy, but party accuracy varied by whether the respondent was assessing the risk of the vaccinated or unvaccinated populations.
For unvaccinated hospitalization risk, 2% of Democrats responded correctly, compared with 16% of Republicans. In fact, 41% of Democrats replied that at least 50% of unvaccinated people have been hospitalized due to COVID-19.
Bar graph. Americans' estimations of the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization risk for unvaccinated people by political party. 41% of Democrats estimate that unvaccinated people have a 50% or higher chance of being hospitalized for COVID-19, compared with 22% of Republicans and 26% of Independents.
By contrast, Democrats were more likely to estimate hospitalization risk for the vaccinated population correctly: 42% of Democrats compared with 33% of Republicans correctly reported that less than one percent of vaccinated people have been hospitalized. Very few respondents thought the risks exceed 50% (only 2% of Democrats and 7% of Republicans).
Bar graph. Americans' estimations of the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization risk for vaccinated people by political party. 42% of Democrats estimate that vaccinated people have a 1% or lower chance of being hospitalized for COVID-19, compared with 33% of Republicans and 37% of Independents.
Public Understanding of Vaccine Efficacy
The relative reduction of risk from vaccination is known as the efficacy estimate. U.S. CDC data suggest that vaccines are roughly 99% effective at reducing hospitalizations. Careful studies that attempt to compare people living in the same area who face similar risks find efficacy rates around 95%, even against Delta variant, for the most common vaccines found in the United States (Pfizer, Moderna).
We used individual responses to the items on hospitalization probabilities for vaccinated and unvaccinated people to calculate an implied efficacy rate, which is the percentage reduction in risk for the vaccinated group. Again, partisanship is a strong predictor of the accuracy of these estimates. U.S. adults estimated a median efficacy rate of 80%, which is close to the actual rate. Democrats, however, were even more accurate, with a median efficacy rate of 88%. Republicans, however, expressed an efficacy rate of only 50%.
Vaccination status was also a strong predictor of efficacy estimates. Unvaccinated Republicans reported risk rates that implied zero benefit of vaccination -- an efficacy rate of 0%. By contrast, vaccinated Republicans reported an estimated efficacy of 73%, much closer to the truth. Unvaccinated Independents were also far off (12% efficacy), but vaccinated independents were close (83%) to Democrats. For Democrats, vaccination status made little difference, however. Unvaccinated Democrats still reported 80% efficacy rates. Given previous studies on the effects of the media and information during COVID, one possible reason is that Democrats are more consistently exposed to information that favorably portrays vaccine efficacy.
|Median risk - unvaccinated||Median risk - vaccinated||Median efficacy|
|By vaccination status|
|Note. Efficacy is estimated at the individual level, by calculating the percentage reduction in hospitalization risk. The median (rather than the mean) is reported for each group to avoid sensitivity to outliers.|
Democrats are more likely to overstate hospitalization risks for unvaccinated people, which may fuel efforts, often led by Democratic Party leaders, to enforce both mask and vaccine mandates. At the same time, Republicans overstate risks to vaccinated people, leading to very low vaccine efficacy estimates. This may be one of the reasons that so many Republicans have been reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Previous research links these behavioral patterns to differences in information exposure. If so, vaccine acceptance is unlikely to significantly increase among Republicans until their trusted media or other information sources emphasize the benefits of vaccination.
Appendix: The Actual Risk and Implied Efficacy
The correct answers to hospitalization risk can be calculated using data from the Department of Health and Human Services (via HealthData.gov) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One needs only the following figures: 1) the population of vaccinated and unvaccinated people 2) total hospitalizations resulting from COVID-19 3) hospitalizations of vaccinated people. We used data through August 9, 2021, one week before the survey was fielded. At that time, total hospitalizations from COVID-19 were estimated to be 2.6 million, with 7,608 vaccinations found among vaccinated people. The size of the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations was nearly equal on August 9 (with 168 million vaccinated and 163 million unvaccinated).
A simplistic analysis of these numbers would yield hospitalization rates of 0.005% for the vaccinated population (1 case in 22,118) and 1.6% for the unvaccinated population (1 case in 62), but those numbers exaggerate the benefits of the vaccine because the unvaccinated population confronted many more days of risk, since vaccination was gradually rolled out starting in December of 2020. For that reason, we take the average population totals over the relevant periods for each population (March 1, 2020-Aug. 9, 2021 for the unvaccinated population and Dec. 15, 2020,-Aug. 9, 2021, for the vaccinated population). The adjusted population of vaccinated people comes to 83 million and 295 million for the vaccinated population, since the entire U.S. population was unvaccinated -- except a small number of participants in clinical trials --up until December of 2020.
Using these adjusted figures, we calculate that the hospitalization rate for the vaccinated population is 0.01% (or 1 in 10,914), and the rate for unvaccinated adults is 0.89% (or 1 case in 112 people). In both cases, therefore, the correct answer is less than one percent, but the implied efficacy rate of vaccination is 99% at preventing hospitalizations. This is calculated as the hospitalization rate for the unvaccinated minus the hospitalization rate for the vaccinated, divided by the unvaccinated rate. In other words, it is the percentage decrease in hospitalization risk. This high rate of protection -- even against Delta -- is consistent with a recent article published in the Lancet, which reviewed large-scale empirical data from the United States and around the world.
Some may argue that patients may have been hospitalized as a result of COVID but not diagnosed as such. We think this is highly unlikely to result in significant downward bias in the rates of hospitalization risk since testing at hospitals became widespread after only a few weeks at the start of the pandemic, and the vast majority of hospitalizations would have occurred since May of 2020, given data on deaths, which are more comprehensively documented. Nonetheless, using various modeling assumptions, CDC epidemiologists estimate that the actual number of hospitalizations may be 1.8 times higher than the reported number. If these estimates are accurate, the true rate of hospitalization risk for the unvaccinated population is 1.6% and as high as 0.2% for the vaccinated population. In either case, the public's misunderstanding of risk is roughly just as inaccurate. One criticism of these inflated estimates is that they assume that many people were hospitalized while asymptomatically carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus, leading to an undetected case. The problem with this reasoning is that it would count people admitted to the hospital for non-COVID reasons who coincidentally had an asymptomatic infection. These cases were correctly omitted from official statistics since the absence of symptoms cannot cause hospitalization.
A more serious limitation is that we count each admission from COVID-19 into a hospital as a unique person. In fact, we know from scholarly research that some patients are readmitted multiple times. One paper estimates that 9% of COVID-19 patients were readmitted to the hospital. This implies that, at minimum, our hospitalization estimates should be multiplied by 0.91 to capture only hospitalizations of unique individuals. Doing so would shrink both hospitalization risk estimates, and they would still both be well below 1%.
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