Newswise — More than a quarter of all U.S. parents say they do not intend to vaccinate their children against COVID-19, according to preliminary results from a study by Indiana University researchers.

Additionally, researchers found that roughly a quarter of all U.S. parents oppose efforts to require coronavirus vaccines in schools, creating a potential roadblock for curbing the virus.  This opposition was more common among mothers than among fathers, and was especially common among white Republican and Republican-leaning mothers.

"Women tend to serve as family health managers within the family so they are generally more likely than men to follow expert medical recommendations for avoiding health risks," said author co-lead Jessica Calarco, professor of sociology at IU. "However, with the onslaught of misinformation around the coronavirus, the pressure women face to control risks may be leading them to disproportionately oppose some new efforts to promote public health."

Preliminary findings from this study have been posted on the open access platform SOC ARXIV as a working paper awaiting peer review.
The study looked at a nationally representative survey of 1,946 U.S. parents and in-depth interviews from Calarco’s Pandemic Parenting Study that included a politically, socio-economically and racially-diverse group of 64 mothers. The researchers looked at parents’ views on COVID-19 vaccinations for children and potential school-required immunizations against COVID-19.

According to the study, more than one-third (34 percent) of all mothers said they do not plan to vaccinate their children. That number was higher for white mothers who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning (47 percent). In contrast, only 17 percent of fathers said they do not plan to vaccinate their children. 

Additionally, a third of all moms oppose school-required vaccinations (33 percent), as do more than half of white Republican/Republican-leaning moms (54 percent). However, only 20 percent of fathers said they oppose school-required vaccinations against COVID-19.

Calarco said the gender disparity is surprising, given that women typically follow medical experts' advice, compared to men. That is where mothers' role as health manager comes in, Calarco said.

"In the U.S., we expect people to take responsibility for their health by avoiding health risks. Mothers, in particular, face strong pressure to control risks to their families' health," Calarco said. "With rampant misinformation, many mothers perceive themselves as able to control the risks of COVID-19 (including through the use of masks) but not the risks of the vaccines. So, they are planning to limit their children’s exposure to the virus rather than depend on the vaccine."

The study also found discrepancies among socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and parents' association with the virus. Parents without bachelor's degrees were significantly more likely than those with bachelor’s degrees to oppose school-required immunizations. Additionally, Black parents are significantly more likely than white parents to oppose school-required immunizations, with the exception of white Republican parents.

Additionally, parents who have had COVID-19 are significantly more likely than parents who have not had COVID-19 to oppose school-required immunizations and are significantly more likely than parents who have not had COVID-19 to oppose school mask mandates.

While mothers are more likely than other parents to oppose school-required immunizations, the study found they are less likely to oppose school mask mandates. In fact, roughly 70 percent of all parents report their youngest school-aged child wore a mask the entire time they were out in public and 47 percent report the same for their youngest non-school age child.

While some parents may change their minds if current trials for a children’s vaccine prove successful, Calarco said these findings have serious implications for the success of curbing the virus, including school-based public health initiatives, especially given the role that mothers, and especially white mothers, play in influencing school policy.

Pointing to work by sociologist Jennifer Reich, who has long studied parents' resistance to vaccines, Calarco suggested that this shift would involve providing adequate social support for mothers, especially those whose children are sick or struggling with behavioral challenges.

"One way we can help turn this around is by changing the current culture that pressures and blames mothers to a culture that includes community care," Calarco said. "Treating children’s health and wellbeing as a collective responsibility—not an individual one—is what vaccines are all about."

Elizabeth M. Anderson, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at IU, is a co-author of the study.

Note to Journalists— This paper was published on SOC ARXIV as a preprint on March 18, 2021.