Few people would dispute that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has not been without major glitches. Scarcity of vaccines, distribution hurdles and difficulty for consumers signing up for vaccinations have marked the early days of this effort. Yet after two months, the glass is looking half full. The government has now purchased more than 600 million doses of vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine approval and agreement with Merck to share production will drive up this number substantially.
After a sluggish start, the rate of vaccinations is up to roughly 2 million vaccinations a day. While only 18 percent of Americans have had at least one shot, it seems the goal President Joe Biden set of having most Americans vaccinated by the end of May is achievable.
So what hurdles remain to get us to the finish line — where most Americans are vaccinated, and we have achieved that prized goal of herd immunity? There will be many obstacles, including winter weather that hampers distribution and the ability to get key components like lipid nanoparticles to vaccine makers. Yet the more significant challenges are attitudinal: Major segments of the public are still resistant to getting a vaccine. Communications have never been more important in winning hearts and minds, or getting shots in arms.
There is still strong resistance to vaccines in communities of color. A Washington Post story revealed that many Latinos in Maryland fear side effects or that personal information will be used against them. Fears based on religion, with misinformation that the vaccine as the “the mark of the beast,” are also present. The net result is that less than 4 percent of those who reported being vaccinated in Maryland as of Feb. 11 identified as Latino, even though the demographic makes up 9 percent of the state’s population.
Social media is a fertilizer that grows misinformation in these communities. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows that more than 3 in 5 Black and Hispanic Americans who chose a “wait and see” approach to vaccines are concerned about getting COVID-19 from the vaccine. This skepticism is not just in minority communities: The same KFF poll found that more than one-fifth of the public has a “wait and see” attitude about vaccines.
How do we overcome this reluctance and achieve vaccination goals that will vanquish the pandemic?
Messaging is critical. Communications from all sectors – government, pharma companies, health providers – should address the following:
Ambiguity– Consumers value clarity in messaging and don’t like to see constant change. Yet with the evolving science of COVID, there is no certainty that what is a fact today will be the same tomorrow. For instance, a study in Lancet revealed that the Pfizer vaccine is 85 percent effective with just one dose. While this is great news, it does change our conventional wisdom about the Pfizer vaccine. We must learn to live with ambiguity and shifting facts.
Transparency – While severe side effects are miniscule in vaccinations to date, a few have occurred. It is crucial to report these honestly while still providing context for overall vaccine safety. Public trust will be quickly lost if there is a perception that consumers are not being told the entire truth. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, an early hero in the COVID saga, is now under fire after his administration allegedly suppressed reports of COVID deaths in nursing homes.
Messengers – It is not what is said, but who says it that makes the most impact. This is especially true with health care messages. With a health issue as serious as COVID, we want to hear from physicians and other experts. That is why Dr. Anthony Fauci’s approval rating is still sky high. Yet we are finding that vaccine influencers are also closer to home. Pastors, barbers and neighbors are a source of vaccine validation for many people. For communities of color, seeing trusted figures and people like themselves in ads or news stories getting vaccinated is powerful. Going local can be the most effective messaging.
Tempered Optimism –With the declining rate of infection and the wide availability of vaccines, there is a tendency collectively to let down our guard. Yet with COVID variants on the rise, we are far from out of the danger zone. CDC head Rochelle Walensky cautioned in an NPR interview that “if things open up, if we’re not really cautious, we could end up with a post-spring break surge the way we saw a post-Christmas surge.” It is crucial that news of vaccine availability and declining COVID cases be tempered with warnings that we can’t give up mask wearing and other mitigation efforts. Good news must be balanced with the ever-present reality of COVID and its mutant strains.
The finish line is in sight for a COVID-weary nation. Effective communications will get us there.
Nancy Hicks is a health care communications consultant who has headed health practices at global communications firms, published two books on health communications and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Health Academy of the Public Relations Society of America.
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