Secret vaxxers: These Americans are getting COVID vaccinations but not telling anyone

Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY

They’re getting COVID-19 vaccinations but not telling their anti-vaxxer friends, family or colleagues, fearing alienation from the people around them.

About 1 in 6 vaccinated Americans say they’re keeping it a secret from at least some people, while more than 1 in 17 aren’t telling anyone, according to a Harris Poll survey conducted exclusively for USA TODAY.

In many cases, vaccinated people hide it because they know people in their life wouldn’t approve.

Such is the case for William, a manufacturing employee in Maine who got vaccinated but isn’t revealing it at work. His boss has argued, falsely, that the COVID vaccines were “experimental,” claimed incorrectly that they were “rushed” and mentioned bogus conspiracy theories that the shots were being used to install tracking chips in people.

a man standing next to a window: This photo provided by New Mexico State University shows Aggie Health and Wellness Center nurse Marissa Archuleta (left) administering a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to Lauren Naranjo at a walk-in clinic at Corbett Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico.© Josh Bachman, AP This photo provided by New Mexico State University shows Aggie Health and Wellness Center nurse Marissa Archuleta (left) administering a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to Lauren Naranjo at a walk-in clinic at Corbett Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. 


The truth is that the three authorized vaccines, which received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration after a rigorous testing process involving tens of thousands of patients, showed they were safe and effective. One, made by Pfizer-BioNTech, has now received full FDA approval and the rest are likely to receive the same approval soon.

Laboratory and real-world testing have concluded they are all safe, do an excellent job at preventing infection and, when a “breakthrough” case occurs, they are highly effective at preventing the symptoms from becoming severe.

William scheduled his shots during off-hours to avoid suspicion from his boss. He requested that this last name not be used in this story out of fear of losing his job if his supervisor reads it. His boss, he said, has ranted about COVID-related restrictions and intimidated workers who expressed opposing views.

“I was very uncomfortable with the idea of letting the supervisor know that I was going out to get a COVID shot,” William said. “It does feel quite hostile.”

While people who don’t want to tell others about their vaccination status are naturally reticent to be interviewed for a story like this, the evidence suggests that William is not alone in hiding his inoculation for fear of social consequences.

The Harris Poll conducted for USA TODAY the weekend of Aug. 28-29 found that 11% of vaccinated Americans are keeping it private from some people, while an additional 6% are not telling anyone.

One in 4 Americans said their vaccination status could cause friction in their relationships. The study featured interviews with 1,901 interviews of a nationally representative sample of American adults, including 1,240 who are vaccinated.

The results reflect how in some quarters getting vaccinated carries a “certain stigma,” said Richard Carpiano, a medical sociologist and professor at the University of California, Riverside. In general, conservatives and white, evangelical Christians are among the most likely groups to shame their own people for getting vaccinated, sociologists said.

Brooke Harrington, a sociologist at Dartmouth College, estimated that tens of millions of Americans belong to social groups, such as churches and neighborhoods, that would shun them if they got vaccinated.

“It’s like a secular article of faith that COVID isn’t real, vaccines don’t work, this whole thing is a left-wing conspiracy,” she said. “If people belong to those right-wing, partisan, social groups and in any way are seen to question, much less deny these articles of faith, they risk essentially being excommunicated.”

And yet the polling also suggests that some Americans are choosing to preserve their health despite the social pressure to avoid taking a step that science shows is critical to ending the pandemic.

“There are some who are resisting the social pressure and doing the right thing even though they might be doing it on the down-low,” Carpiano said.

At one hospital in Missouri, medical professionals have set up a private area so that patients can get vaccinated where no one can see them.

Ozarks Healthcare spokesperson Brittany Simers declined to comment for this story. But one of the Ozarks doctors, Priscilla Frase, said in a video produced by the hospital that patients had voiced concerns about how their family members, friends and co-workers would react if they got vaccinated.

“Nobody should have to feel that pressure to get something that they want,” Frase said. “We’ve got to stop ridiculing people who do or don’t want to get the vaccine.”

Holdouts are less likely to admit it if they decide to get vaccinated

To be sure, getting vaccinated has been a source of pride for countless Americans. Some posted selfies of themselves getting vaccinated or showing their vaccine card. Others wore a celebratory sticker they got from their vaccine clinic.

Indeed, 91% of Americans who got vaccinated in the first few months of the immunization campaign are willing to tell anyone, according to the poll.

But that would not be the case for those who are still refusing the shots. Of those who haven’t gotten one, 36% say that if they did, they wouldn’t tell anyone, according to the Harris Poll.

Dallas-Fort Worth area resident Julie said it took significant convincing to get her mother, who resides in an assisted living facility, to get vaccinated recently.

But when she finally did, her mother asked Julie not to tell her sister due to her sister’s adherence to QAnon, a loosely connected group of conspiracy theorists that some experts have called a “cult” for its religious-like fervor. Among many other things, QAnon followers have espoused false various theories about the COVID vaccines.

“My anti-vaxx sister – she blocked me on Twitter and she blocked me on Facebook,” said Julie, who requested that USA TODAY not publish her last name to avoid her sister finding out about her mom’s vaccination status.

Julie said she’s saddened by the anti-vaccination movement, especially given the numerous people she’s known who contracted COVID-19.

“I can’t even count how many (have died from the disease),” she said.

Resisting vaccination isn’t necessarily about the facts

Experts on misinformation, political tribalism and group identity emphasized that Americans who are resisting vaccination aren’t necessarily doing so because of their conclusions about the effectiveness of the shots.

In fact, there is precedent for people compromising their own safety to remain in good standing with their social group, said Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution expert on polarization and author of “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.”

“People will gladly go to war and risk being killed and even get killed in order to stay on good terms with their group,” he said. “So you can apply that to vaccination.”

In other cases, some people may not be willing to tell others they’re vaccinated because they feel like they’ve let them down.

“They’ll actually feel that getting vaccinated, while maybe self-interested, is morally wrong or some type of betrayal,” Rauch said. “They may feel guilty about it.”

In that respect, the quintessentially human desire to be liked and loved explains why many people don’t want to get publicly vaccinated.

“It’s not irrational to be afraid of what your family, your coworkers, your church, your neighborhood is going to do to you if you’re seen to break ranks with this group orthodoxy,” said Harrington, the Dartmouth sociologist. “So of course you get vaccinated in disguise.”


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