Why the flu shot is increasingly partisan: What doctors need to know

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published February 24, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Vaccine hesitancy is most prevalent among Republicans, less than two-thirds of whom received a COVID shot. 

  • Approximately 65% of Democrats had gotten or intend to get a seasonal flu vaccine, compared with 40% of Republicans.

  • Vaccine hesitancy proliferates despite demonstrated clinical efficacy. Clinicians are well-positioned to address this.

  • Doctors could mitigate vaccine hesitancy by explaining the benefits to the patient, addressing vaccine-related concerns, and reminding patients that receiving a vaccine protects their community in addition to their personal health.

Those who consume conservative media are less likely to receive a COVID shot. This trend has surfaced in recent polling data regarding the influenza vaccine, too.

Researchers stand by the evidence proving the efficacy of vaccinations against disease in the face of the current anti-vaccine movement. To combat vaccine hesitancy, doctors can thoroughly address patients’ concerns and continually inform them about the benefits of getting vaccinated—against influenza and COVID.

COVID and flu vaccine partisanship

The partisan gap in vaccine acceptance seems to have widened recently. A 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found related partisanship trends associated with the COVID vaccines: Where 90% of Democrats had already received one dose, only 61% of Republicans had done the same.

That same poll showed that 40% of Republicans had either received or intended to receive a flu shot, trailing the 65% of Democrats who shared that experience. 

The partisan gap for the flu shot was smaller in 2020, according to data from a 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll. This report found that 58% of Republicans had received or planned to receive the flu shot, while 67% of Democrats had done the same. 

Media and vaccines

The emerging partisanship of the flu vaccine could have roots in the growing politicization of vaccines. A study published by Current Psychology looked at the ways in which partisan media influenced attitudes and behaviors pertaining to vaccines.

The study referenced prior research which found that conservative news outlets disseminated inaccurate information regarding the COVID vaccine, inciting fear among audiences. Individuals who consumed conservative media were subsequently less likely to get the COVID vaccine.

The author of the study noted that this pattern may stem from the fact that conservative thinkers tend to empathize with tight circles of family and friends, but struggle to do so with larger groups of people. Media that speaks to the individual is therefore more likely to catch the eye of a conservative thinker, as opposed to media that centers communities.

Promoting the flu shot

Physicians play a major role in their patients’ decision to get vaccinated. They are, after all, their patients’ most trusted source of vaccine information—regardless of party affiliation.

Physicians promoting the flu vaccine can take cues from this guide published by the CDC and implement the SHARE approach:

  • Share the many reasons why patients could benefit from the vaccine. Take risk factors such as their health status, occupation, and age into account when relaying this information.

  • Highlight the positive outcomes you personally, as well as other patients, have experienced from getting the flu vaccine. In reinforcing its successes, physicians foster confidence in the vaccine among patients.

  • Address the concerns and questions patients may have regarding the safety, efficacy, and side effects of the vaccine. Share that vaccinated individuals could still contract the flu, but that symptoms are likely to stay mild. Keep your language simple to avoid confusion.

  • Remind patients that getting vaccinated protects their loved ones in addition to themselves. Receiving a flu shot significantly mitigates harsh symptoms, complications from the illness, and death among the vaccinated and those with whom they regularly share space.

  • Explain the types of costs involved with a bout of the flu. Aside from getting sick and potentially passing the flu to loved ones, missing out on family events or missing work as a result of flu-related illness is a possibility. Loss of income and medical expenses can add to a  financial burden. Patients can avoid this by getting vaccinated. Sickness isn’t cheap.

Related: Prevalent ethical dilemmas in practice today—as told by doctors

Addressing COVID vaccine hesitancy

For the COVID vaccine, the American Medical Association recommends similar promotion methods: Address patients’ fears regarding side effects, inquire about their hesitancy, clarify any misinformation they may have gathered, and confirm that they do, in fact, need to get one.

Doctors can also tailor explanations to each patient’s politics by emphasizing the vaccine’s power to protect their loved ones and friends. Regardless of whether the patient believes that getting vaccinated is an individual’s decision, or for the greater good, they need to know whom they’re serving by doing so.

What this means for you

To fight vaccine hesitancy stemming from partisanship, doctors can take the SHARE approach: Share the reasons why flu vaccines are important, highlight the positive outcomes associated with flu shots, address any questions your patients might have, remind patients that vaccines protect the individual as well as their community, and explain the serious consequences of contracting influenza.


  1. Borah P. Message framing and COVID-19 vaccination intention: Moderating roles of partisan media use and pre-attitudes about vaccination. Current Psychology. 2022.

  2. CDC. Make a strong influenza vaccine recommendation. 2021.

  3. Henry T. COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy: 10 tips for talking with patients. American Medical Association. 2021.

  4. Humer C, Smith G, et al. 60% of U.S. adults plan to get seasonal flu vaccine: Reuters/Ipsos poll. Reuters. 2020.

  5. Hamel L, Lopes L, et al. KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: October 2021. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2021.

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