By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) — While a much-anticipated coronavirus vaccine seems to be getting closer, a critical question is also coming into focus: will the public accept it? A new statewide poll by Western New England University finds 59% of us would be likely to get vaccinated if the shot were available today, while 38% would be unlikely to do so. And that’s a big-time warning sign.

We tend to think of ourselves here in Massachusetts as relatively enlightened, and our compliance rates with mask-wearing and other safety measures have been among the nation’s highest. But that 59% figure is the same as the latest national polling on vaccine acceptance, no better or worse.

In the WENU poll that number drops below fifty percent among Republicans and people of color. If such large percentages of people won’t take it, a vaccine isn’t likely to stop the spread.

The pollsters asked those who said they were unlikely to take it why they felt that way, and the most common responses were distrust of the vaccine approval process, concern over side effects, and wanting to know more about the vaccine. Only four percent cited so-called anti-vaxxer philosophy.

That’s a sign that the resistance to a vaccine grows out of the current political environment, not some longstanding skepticism of all vaccines. Between the president’s attacks on the CDC for supposedly slow-walking vaccine approval for political reasons, and the Democrats warning people away from any vaccine approved before election day, the political class has done a number on public confidence in the science. Rebuilding it will be job one for the new administration.

One last finding from this poll: asked if they’re worried they will contract the virus, 76% of Democrats and 66% of independents said yes, they were worried. But among Republicans, only 32% agreed, with a majority saying they’re not worried.

Think about that for a second. After nearly ten months of immersion in the awful reality of this pandemic, the death toll, the hospital scenes, there’s a glaring partisan split over whether it’s even a threat at all.

The worst public health nightmare in a century has been so thoroughly politicized it threatens to severely hamper our escape plan.

Jon Keller