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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Registered nurse Lauren Dean fills syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine inside the pharmacy at the Hamilton County Health Department's new COVID vaccination pod at the CARTA bus terminal on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Most Chattanooga leaders are concerned about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Tennessee and believe politics and misinformation are the driving forces behind it, according to the latest Times Free Press Power Poll — which surveys people in Chattanooga and Hamilton County who make or influence policy decisions at the local, state and federal levels.

However, the vast majority of those who responded to the survey are extremely willing to be vaccinated themselves, with 88% saying they were "completely willing" to be vaccinated and had already received at least one shot. The survey results reflect state and national trends, where higher levels of vaccine acceptance is seen among populations with higher education attainment and income levels, such as those participating in the Power Poll.

The poll, conducted Monday through Thursday, was sent to 119 people, and 73 replied for a response rate of 61%. While not scientific, the monthly survey gauges what business, civic, education and nonprofit leaders and elected officials are thinking.

Politics was the most popular answer (33%) in terms of what's fueling vaccine hesitancy, followed by misinformation (25%) and distrust in science/vaccines (14%), though several respondents who left comments about the poll said the issue is multifaceted.

"I definitely do believe that all of the factors listed contribute to the hesitancy in getting vaccinated in addition to other reasons," wrote Sheila Boyington, co-founder and president of Thinking Media. "It is surprising to hear that people are more worried about side effects of the vaccine than actually getting COVID. As someone who had family and close friends die from COVID and hearing from those on the front line at Erlanger as the vice chairman of their board, I believe we need to trust the science."

Zach Wamp, president and owner of Zach Wamp Consulting and a former U.S. congressman, said he believes vaccine hesitancy is also age dependent.

"Older citizens have greater risk for not taking the vaccine so they take it willingly. Young single women are least likely to take it because there may not be conclusive data on child bearing effects since the virus is barely a year old. Mixed messages from 'experts' have also tainted the vaccine campaign," Wamp wrote.

Mark McKnight, president of Reflection Riding, said that he would have preferred the option "all of the above" in terms of what's driving vaccine hesitancy. He also said poor understanding of the scientific process, from both the general public and political leaders, is to blame. However, he is hopeful the hesitancy will fade with time.

"It is clear the vaccines are safe. Unfortunately, too many area residents don't trust science, and scientists are notoriously bad at communicating simply and effectively," McKnight wrote. "The fact that science changes recommendations rapidly with new evidence (this is a feature of the scientific process, not a bug, by the way), and you have a recipe for vaccine hesitancy."

Respondents were not optimistic when asked whether herd immunity for COVID-19 — which public health experts estimate will require 70% of the population to be vaccinated — will be achieved this year in Hamilton County. Fifty-five percent of respondents said the county will not reach herd immunity this year.

The majority of respondents also are concerned about vaccine hesitancy, with 56% said they were "moderately worried" and 23% saying they were "very worried." Nearly 14% of respondents said they are "not worried at all" about vaccine hesitancy.

In terms of returning to work, most respondents were either moderately or slightly concerned about COVID-19 exposures on the job, and only 4% said they were "very concerned."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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