A life-long New Yorker and the founder of Loud Majority, a conservative grassroots movement based in Long Island, Farash, 30, says he is unvaccinated and doesn't feel like he needs to be due to natural antibodies from having previously been infected with COVID-19.
“Someone like myself will not just take someone’s word for it and go,” he says. “I want to see evidence. I want to see science. I want to see something factually backed up, factually bolstered.”
Farash is part of the segment of the U.S. population whose trust in the many top health experts has dwindled.
Much of the problem started in early 2020, during the often-controversial White House COVID-19 press briefings, as experts tried to understand the science of the new virus with the latest information.
Farash says shifting recommendations for pandemic safety measures, among other concerns about health experts’ transparency on information surrounding the virus and its effects, ultimately led to confusion, and then doubts, on the science behind COVID-19 safety mandates.
He, along with many who share similar views, would have preferred if health experts were more vocal about their uncertainty, he says.
“You’re being told by experts, at the first part of this, ‘This is a very dangerous virus. This is a brand new virus. We don’t know much about it. But we do know that you have to do ABCDEFG to keep yourself safe,’” Farash says. “But how could that be true if you don’t know much about the virus?”
A Recipe for Confusion
Health experts must be very cautious, particularly in the early stages, because conflicting arguments can easily lead to confusion or people choosing what to believe based on what’s closest to their own beliefs, says Thomas E. Patterson, PhD, the Bradlee professor of Government and the Press at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“If they’re a little bit in the speculative realm and they put out something that they later have to retract, the truth never catches up,” Patterson says. “So, I do think it’s incumbent on those who are in positions of authority in the case of a public health issue to make sure that they’ve got their facts straight at the beginning.”
But the news media also plays a role in mixed messaging surrounding COVID-19, according to Todd Gitlin, PhD, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia University in New York City.
This is largely due to some journalists not being fully knowledgeable in scientific analysis.
Being well-versed before making scientific announcements is critical, particularly with a virus like COVID-19, he says.
“The evolution of the virus is unfolding in real time,” Gitlin says. “If you were simply reporting the day-to-day, sort of 'state of belief' in what would be effective against the virus or even about the danger of the virus itself, you would be tracing a zigzag line, which could be quite confusing.”
The Partisan Divide
Brooke Elliott, 29, is unvaccinated and has also greatly lost trust in many of the country’s leading health experts and institutions, as well as much of the media. From Virginia, she had gone back to school prior to the pandemic, but is now caring for her young child at home for the time being. Like Farash, she also has recovered from COVID and feels her natural antibodies are now sufficient protection from reinfection or serious illness.
Elliott says her doubts began to rise in late 2020, when information on COVID-19 and vaccines fully transformed from right and wrong to right and left, specifically partisan politics.
“There was just a growing pattern of inconsistencies,” Elliott says. “The politicization of COVID started to kind of emerge more and more. I think with it being an election year, candidates kind of pull from anything and everything to make it take on a different political nature as well. I think that bias kind of began to creep up. Is this 100% about COVID now or is this kind of becoming something else or is there a dual purpose?”
Early in the pandemic, there was a generally high amount of trust in both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, says Liz Hamel, vice president and director of the Public Opinion and Survey Research Program at Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Over time, that total trust has eroded, but has really diverged along partisan lines, with republican trust dropping rapidly,” Hamel says.
This pattern could lead to problems if there are future public health crises or pandemics, she says.
“I think to the extent that politics continues to be a factor in how we handle public health, it will continue,” Hamel says.
A Better Way Forward
However, there are ways to possibly combat this issue.
“One thing I would say that we’ve learned in our research is that people trust individual healthcare providers at this point much more than they trust sort of national or even local public health messengers,” Hamel says. “I think people are more likely to be open to considering information that conflicts with their preconceived notions when it comes from their own healthcare providers than when it comes from a talking head on TV.”
But political leaders can also play a role in restoring trust, particularly when choosing to stand behind public health experts, says Shanto Iyengar, PhD, professor of political science and director of the political communication laboratory at Stanford University.
“Decades of research demonstrates that the public follows the views of their preferred leaders,” Iyengar says.
Elliott says the pandemic has caused her to view the world through a new set of eyes. She now operates with a “sliding scale of skepticism” vs. confident trust of any particular person or source.
Many who have similar distrust would likely be more understanding of inconsistencies from health experts if reactions to their uncertainty weren’t so harsh, Elliott says.
“That curiosity and asking those questions, instead of being a natural and welcomed response, has received huge amounts of criticism and has been censored in many cases. That starts to raise more suspicions,” she says.
For instance, a sizeable portion of unvaccinated adults have doubts about the science surrounding COVID-19 vaccines specifically.
Because it’s possible this group could become more open to getting the vaccine, some messaging can be counterproductive, according to Gitlin.
“I think simply preaching to people, sermonizing, and beating up on people who are resistant to vaccination is probably not effective,” Gitlin says. “Maybe the people who are resistant, I think, are already resentful of being talked down to and suspicious of government interventions.”
It’s also important to remember that people choose to remain unvaccinated for various reasons, Gitlin says.
For example, this can be seen in vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans that largely stems from the infamous Tuskegee Study that spanned from the early 1930s to the 1970s.
“But we also know that there are people whose resistance is simply out of suspicion of all establishments, especially medical establishments, media establishments, political, corporate,” Gitlin says.
Farash says that he hopes his trust in health experts and institutions will be restored. But first, the public’s trust in each other needs mending.
“Do you know how many times I’ve been told that because I’m asking questions, I’m putting people’s lives at risk?” Farash says. “I don’t think that’s appropriate. I just want answers. I want to know what we’re doing. I want to know why the rules are what they are. Why is the speed limit 60 miles an hour in Upstate New York but only 55 miles an hour in Long Island?”