Exclusive: Americans' readiness to take the COVID-19 vaccine spikes after the start of shots

Americans' willingness to take the coronavirus vaccine has jumped since the first two vaccines were authorized by the FDA and health care workers and nursing home residents began to receive the shots. 

That growing acceptance is a reassuring sign for public health experts who call distribution of the vaccine crucial to controlling the pandemic that has killed more than 318,000 people in the USA. 

In a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll Wednesday through Sunday, 46% say they will take the vaccine as soon as they can. That's close to double the 26% who were ready to get the shot as soon as possible in a USA TODAY poll in late October. In the new poll, 32% say they will wait for others to get the shots before they do so themselves. 

"We need to get control of this virus, and that would be doing my part," says Susan Sadule, 59, a retiree from Easton, Pennsylvania, who voted for Joe Biden in the presidential election. She was among those polled. 

"From what I've read, it's going to take about 75% of the nation taking the vaccine in order to create herd immunity," says Lisa McAlister, 48, a registered nurse from Grove, Oklahoma, who voted for President Donald Trump, "and quite frankly, I don't want to live in a pandemic the rest of my life."

Those most resistant to taking a vaccine remain unpersuaded. In October, one in five said they wouldn't take the vaccine, now or later. An identical 20% say that in this month's survey.

Both polls surveyed 1,000 registered voters and have margins of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. 

More:Two COVID-19 vaccines are authorized in the USA; here's what we know about them

On the issue of personal health, there is a sharp partisan divide.

Two-thirds of Democrats, 67%, are willing to take the vaccine as soon as possible. The percentage of Republicans ready to take the vaccine is a stitch lower than the percentage who say they would never take it, 35% compared with 36%.

"It's not a cure; it's barely preventative," scoffs Casey Case, 39, an electrician from Vacaville, California, who voted for Trump. He questions the vaccine's effectiveness and its safety. "There's already been multiple people who've had drastic side effects of it already or severe allergic reactions," he says. 

Though a handful of people in Alaska and Great Britain who got the coronavirus vaccine had a severe allergic reaction to it, all have recovered.

Asked why they aren't ready to take the vaccine, at least not yet, almost two-thirds say they are worried it isn't safe. Fourteen percent say they never take vaccines of any kind, and 8% say they don't believe COVID-19 is a real threat.

A parade of elected officials – from Vice President Mike Pence to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to President-elect Biden – have gotten shots before cameras, part of an effort to persuade Americans the vaccine is safe to use and important to take.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says "we need to own" the pandemic if we are going to solve it.

When asked whom they trust most on whether to take it, people didn't cite political figures. More than four in 10 say they trust their own doctor most, and three in 10 name Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert. No other person reaches double digits, including Trump (5%) or Biden (1%).

That said, Biden's actions on the coronavirus have gotten reasonably good ratings, especially considering the partisan turmoil since he defeated Trump's bid for a second term. By 22 percentage points, 52%-30%, those surveyed say they approve of Biden's approach on the pandemic; 18% are undecided. 

Eighty-four percent of those surveyed, including two-thirds of Republicans, say they would personally abide by Biden's call for all Americans to wear masks in public places for the first 100 days of his tenure in an effort to bring the virus under control.

"Given that he has no authorities other than his bully pulpit coming in, I think he's been a valuable role model," Babette Salus, 60, of Springfield, Illinois, says. A retired attorney who works for a nonprofit organization, she voted for Biden for president. She faults Trump for failing to lead by example during the pandemic.

"I think there's 300,000 souls that would agree with me, that he has not been doing a very good job," she says.

The broad reach of COVID-19 is clear. Half of those surveyed, 49%, say they or someone in their family had gotten the virus. Nearly 18 million Americans have been diagnosed with it. 

Vial of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first approved for use in the U.S.

A majority in the poll are opposed to vaccine mandates by employers (60% against) and schools (52% against). But most are braced to heed the warnings of health officials to scale back holiday celebrations this month. The spread of the virus during Thanksgiving gatherings contributed to a rise in cases, health experts say.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans, 64%, say they plan to stay home during the holidays, avoiding travel or gatherings with those outside their immediate households. Nineteen percent say they will hold some celebrations but limit the numbers attending and keep them outdoors. Only 15% say they plan to go ahead with customary travel and gatherings with family and friends, in conflict with advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“Most of those celebrating the holidays as normal, ignoring CDC guidelines, say they will flat out not take the vaccine at all, even when it’s available for them,” says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. "That sets the stage for substantial virus-spreading.”

When will the nation get back to normal?

By the middle of 2021, Salus predicts. Things "may not be the way they were, but it will be normal: Businesses will open, and people will get together, and kids will be back in schools, and colleges and universities will be on campus." Half of those surveyed say the USA will be back to normal by the end of next year. 

"By the summertime," says David Cheff, 73, a retiree from Jacksonville, Florida, who voted for Trump. But he adds, "Who knows what normal is these days?"