Fear of COVID-19 Outweighs Fear of Vaccine Side Effects

Surveys Fielded From Dec. 16 to Feb. 26

illustration of woman in bed worried about COVID-19 versus the vaccine

Theresa Chiechi / Verywell

Key Themes From Our Survey

  • People are still worried about vaccine side effects, but they’re more afraid of COVID-19.
  • More people feel confident about COVID-19 vaccines—about 70% of our sample are either already vaccinated or say they will take a vaccine.
  • Vaccine attitudes are still divided, but even rejectors admit their opinions have a little wiggle room.

With more than 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered over the last four months, only about 36,000 adverse effects in the CDC’s database—about 0.04%—have been reported as of mid-March.

These numbers are incredibly low given the huge number of people getting vaccinated. But people still worry about side effects, our latest Verywell Health Vaccine Sentiment Tracker survey shows. However, these worries are now outweighed by the fear of contracting COVID-19.

People are more inclined to get the vaccine than ever—70% of respondents are now vaccinated or plan to be vaccinated, compared to 53% when we started the survey.

The data presented in this article is from six surveys of 1,000 Americans asked about their thoughts and feelings towards getting the COVID-19 vaccines. We collected the latest data for the week ending on February 26. Our survey sample highlighted four types of respondents based on their answer to whether or not they’d get an FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccine if it were freely available: 

  • Acceptors: Those who would agree to be vaccinated
  • Rejectors: Those who would not agree to take a vaccine
  • Undecideds: Those who don’t know if they would take a vaccine
  • Vaccinated: Those who have received a COVID-19 vaccination

Compared to our first survey in December, we’re seeing shrinking numbers of undecideds (down 7 points) and rejectors (also down 7 points). Hopefully, this trend will continue as more folks get vaccinated.

Confidence in the Vaccine Is Overtaking Stubborn Side Effect Concerns

Concern about potential vaccine side effects hasn’t meaningfully decreased among the general public over the course of this survey. In the latest wave, 41% of our respondents say they’re at least moderately concerned about the side effects—just 3 points lower than our first survey in December, despite friends, family, and millions of other Americans getting vaccinated. Clearly, people are afraid of the unknown.

What are the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?

Public health officials say to expect largely mild side effects. You may feel pain and redness at the injection site, fatigue, a headache, joint and muscle aches, and/or a fever. New reports suggest if you have a history of severe vaccine reactions, you may experience a similar reaction if you get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. A very rare symptom may include a temporary weakness or paralysis of the facial muscles called Bell’s palsy.

Though side effect concerns haven’t budged much, confidence that the vaccines will be effective has. Nearly half (49%) of respondents now say they have a great deal of confidence or more in the vaccine—up 11 points from December.

In light of these conflicting sentiments, we decided to ask a new question. What worries people more: vaccine side effects or getting COVID-19? A slight majority seem more concerned about the virus: 57% of participants say COVID-19 symptoms scare them more than the vaccine’s side effects.

Younger People Are Still More Concerned about Vaccine Side Effects

Those who are still more likely to be afraid of vaccine side effects are:

  • Younger (nearly half of those who are more fearful of side effects than COVID-19 are millennials or younger)
  • Single
  • Essential workers
  • Low earners

Mild to moderate side effects of the mRNA vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech are prevalent. People experience very sore arms, fevers, chills, and overall exhaustion as their immune system fights what it thinks is a nasty virus.

These side effects are worse in younger people, who are less susceptible to a severe case of COVID-19, so it makes sense they may be more wary of the vaccines than the virus. Side effects can also be worse after the second dose. For some people, bad symptoms could mean missing work and a paycheck. For those mentioned above—a sole earner or someone in a low-paying job—that could mean not making bill or rent payments.

The authorization of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine, which was less likely to cause arm pain and fever in clinical trial participants, may quell some of these symptom fears. The Jonhson & Jonhson vaccine is already the more preferred vaccine among our survey respondents: More unvaccinated Americans say they’d prefer to take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (42%) than the Pfizer vaccine (31%).

Rejectors Are Deeply Concerned about Vaccine Side Effects

Those who say they don't plan to get a COVID-19 shot are significantly more afraid of vaccine side effects than symptoms of COVID-19 itself.

But there's reason to think they'll change their minds over time. Rejectors seem more likely to be flexible in their vaccine decision than acceptors. While 76% of acceptors say they're unlikely to change their mind in the next five months, only 68% of rejectors say the same.

Rejectors are also twice as likely to say they’re “50/50” on changing their minds compared to acceptors. So there is room to engage and inform at least some of these people. If you’ve got a rejector in your life, our COVID-19 vaccine Healthy Conversation Coach can guide you through what to say—and what not to say—to someone expressing hesitation or aversion towards the COVID-19 vaccines.

It's All About Who You Know

Seventy-three percent of respondents now know someone who has gotten the vaccine, up from 36% in mid-January. Just as people are more likely to get vaccinated if they know someone who’s been vaccinated, people are more likely to get vaccinated if they know someone who’s had COVID-19. In our most recent survey, 75% of people who know someone who’s had COVID-19 are either already vaccinated or plan to be—compared to only 62% of those do not.

With the death toll from this virus still rising every day, 4.5 million people have lost a close family member. On top of that, around a third of people who have contracted COVID-19 can have symptoms for months—even if the infection was asymptomatic. Hearing stories of lost loved ones and prolonged illness is likely a strong reason many want to get the vaccine.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone able and eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine should get one as soon as they can. But knowing when you’re eligible and where to get an appointment just seems to be getting more complex every day. Check out our resources below for more information on how to navigate determining your eligibility and getting an appointment to be vaccinated. 

Methodology

The Verywell Vaccine Sentiment Tracker is a bi-weekly measurement of Americans’ attitudes and behaviors around COVID-19 and the vaccine. The survey is fielded online, every other week beginning December 16, 2020, to 1,000 American adults. The total sample matches U.S. Census estimates for age, gender, race/ethnicity, and region.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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