Amid pandemic, trust in childhood vaccines rose—but support for vaccine mandates decreased

June 20, 2023—Belief in the safety of routine childhood vaccines rose over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, but opposition grew to any sort of requirement that children be vaccinated in order to attend public schools, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study was published on June 6, 2023, in Health Affairs. The researchers are members of the Harvard Opinion Research Program: Gillian SteelFisher, director of global polling (also a principal research scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management); Mary Findling, assistant director (also a research associate in the Department of Health Policy and Management); Hannah Caporello, senior research projects manager; and Rebekah Stein, research assistant.

The researchers sought to respond to public health experts’ concern that widespread mistrust of COVID-19 vaccines would spill over to routine childhood vaccines for preventable diseases such as polio, measles, and tetanus. For the study, researchers assessed the results of 21 nationally representative public opinion polls conducted between 2015 and 2023 that asked people about their attitudes around vaccines.

In spite of fears and contrary to many news headlines, the public has grown more trusting of routine childhood vaccination, the study found. Before the pandemic, between 54% and 61% of people believed that routine childhood vaccines were “very safe”; by late 2022, 70% of people believed this.

The authors suggested that the increase in positive views of childhood vaccines may be because the novel COVID-19 vaccine may make the routine vaccines seem safer by comparison.

But support for vaccine mandates for school children was a different story. Such support dropped by roughly 12 percentage points between 2019 and 2023, the authors found. “COVID resulted in much less support for any kind of mandates anywhere,” said SteelFisher said in a June 7 article from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). “There’s a large swatch of population concerned about overreach.”

Still, even with decreased support for required childhood vaccines, it remains a well-supported policy across the country. “Lower doesn’t mean low,” SteelFisher told CIDRAP. “But we don’t want to see support erode further.”

Read the study: Has COVID-19 Threatened Routine Childhood Vaccination? Insights From US Public Opinion Polls

Read the CIDRAP article: Pandemic changed attitudes toward mandating childhood vaccinations