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Poll: Hesitant South Dakotans trust clergy on COVID-19 vaccine. Fauci, not so much

South Dakotans hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine might be most swayed by religious leaders, a South Dakota State University poll showed. South Dakotans also trust their doctor and pharmacist to convince them. Dr. Anthony Fauci, politicians or other medical representatives? Not so much.

Parishioners make their way into Spirit of Faith church on Sunday for service in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Parishioners make their way into Spirit of Faith church on Sunday for service in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — If you want to convince South Dakotans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, you'll have more success if you're a religious leader, recent polling shows. If you're Dr. Anthony Fauci, good luck. You'll have your work cut out for you.

Clergy could play a crucial role in convincing South Dakotans hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine, according the polling of registered voters in the state conducted by a South Dakota State University research center in April and released this month, highlighting the centrality of religion to many of the state's residents.

South Dakotans also ranked their doctor or pharmacist highly as as trusted source of vaccine information, but had less trust in the South Dakota State Medical Association and Dr. Anthony Fauci , the head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,. who has become a lightning rod for opinions about pandemic restrictions.

The dislike for Fauci was particularly strong among South Dakotans who said they believe the government can never be trusted, according to the survey results.

The messaging insights could be crucial tool for state health leaders eager to encourage a dwindling number of South Dakotans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.


Nearly 49% of South Dakotans eligible to get the shot are now fully vaccinated , according to the state Department of Health, citing state and federal data. But state health officials say they're trying to vaccinate 70% of the state's population, since broad vaccinations will tamp down the spread of the virus.

David Wiltse, an associate professor of political science at SDSU and director of the research group that conducted the poll, said he hadn't heard from state health officials regarding the survey results but still hoped he would. However, he worried the results may come too late to make a difference to the state's vaccine messaging amid hardened, politicized beliefs about the pandemic.

"Hopefully somebody will take note of it and see other work that is finding similar results, and put two and two together and really come up with a way to approach people in the most effective manner possible," he said. "Just given the religiosity of the state, given the religiosity of the country, this is an important piece of that puzzle."

Clergy were ranked twice as likely to sway those hesitant about the vaccine compared to political and medical representatives, according to the survey . Researchers presented unvaccinated participants with a variety of pro-vaccine messages and asked them to gauge which one was most convincing, and compared the results to those from a control group presented with a message unrelated to vaccinations.

The results were consistent with other poll questions about religiosity, indicating how important religion is to South Dakota residents. Half of South Dakotans described religion as very important to their life, with another 22% saying religion was somewhat important to them.

The survey didn't compare institutional messaging versus conversations with an individual's own religious leader, which Wiltse said could prove even more convincing.

"We think this really understates the kind of influence that religion can have in terms of really being a partner with public health officials in anything that they might do," he said.

A total of 3,057 registered voters in South Dakota completed the South Dakota Covid Impact Survey conducted from April 12-15 by The SDSU Poll, a research group housed in the School of American and Global Studies at South Dakota State University. The weighted results of the online surveys had a margin of errors of 2%.


Jeremy Fugleberg is editor of The Vault, Forum Communications Co.'s home for Midwest history, mysteries, crime and culture. He is also a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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