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Opinion: Communications Important to Success of Vaccine Rollout

This article was originally published in Morning Consult.

Most of America just breathed a sigh of relief that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are on their way to approval. Both companies have applied for an emergency permit from the Food and Drug Administration. The good news from these companies is that data show an efficacy rate for the vaccines in excess of 90 percent.

As we are all contemplating a post-COVID life with indoor travel, concerts and restaurants, the challenges of getting the vaccine “operational” are immense. As mentioned earlier, vaccines are not the solution, but vaccines – they put vaccine into the arms of millions of Americans.

Much has been written about the steps of distribution, storage, and who will get the vaccine first, which will be determined by a federal advisory group after approval by the FDA. Frontline health workers are expected to receive the vaccine in January, with the rest of the population having access by spring and summer 2021.

These logistical hurdles, including the extreme cold storage that the Pfizer vaccine requires, can be overcome. The far greater challenge is to convince a skeptical public to get vaccinated in numbers that achieve population immunity. The success of vaccine implementation will depend on effective communication and the fight against misinformation like never before.

All three companies – Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca – require two doses of the vaccine, which further complicates the “vaccination” message. But there is a far bigger hurdle for embassies: Due to the politicization of COVID-19, many Americans believe that it is “false news”. The Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic created so much misinformation that it created a credibility problem for the vaccine’s launch. Health care workers report that some COVID patients in the intensive care unit are still denying that it is a virus.

When you link this rejection to the anti-Vaxxer sentiments that have long popped beneath the surface of our healthcare system, the challenge of getting most Americans vaccinated is daunting. Color communities have often resisted vaccinations because of previous harmful experiences with the medical system. Still, black and Hispanic Americans have been disproportionately hit by COVID. Langer Research just published a poll in the Washington Post that found fewer than half of black Americans intend to get vaccinated, while two-thirds of Hispanics said they would get vaccinated. Only trusted community voices can change these numbers.

Many Americans refuse to get a flu vaccine each year, even though the flu can kill up to 60,000 people annually. The coronavirus has killed over 260,000 Americans. Will that number help increase the uptake and urgency of COVID vaccines?

Never before in healthcare communication have we faced major challenges when introducing a medical device. Businesses, government agencies, and health organizations have qualified communicators. We are going to need all of your collective expertise to get America vaccinated.

Here are some principles that should influence communication when introducing the vaccine:

Accuracy and Consistency of Message – It is important that all communication materials related to the vaccines contain the most accurate and up-to-date information. Correcting information that has been made public is a serious blow to credibility. Messaging should be consistent across all speakers in the rollout.

Simple and Clear – Simple, direct messages are the easiest to save. The science behind vaccines is fascinating, but people don’t need to know the intricacies of RNA as well as the why and how of vaccination. Greetings to Dr. Michael Osterholm, Epidemiologist of the COVID Task Force of President-Elect Joe Biden: Dr. Osterholm has a direct and clear way of formulating messages. Regarding social distancing, he advises against “exchanging air with people”. Maestro!

Repetition of News – We are bombarded with news: Americans send 26 billion text messages every day. A message has to be repeated consistently in order to break through. It is not enough to rely on the introduction of vaccines with the usual news. It is an ongoing effort over time that causes messages to “get stuck”.

Credibility of Speakers – It’s not just what you say, it’s the one who says it. Run with the health professionals. Dr. Anthony Fauci is the most trusted health guide on COVID-19 issues. In a recent survey by Morning Consult, 2 out of 3 respondents rated their response to COVID-19 as “excellent” or “good”. Despite being caught in a political crossfire, his credibility with the American public remains high and they will expect him to be a “seal of approval” for the vaccines. Dr. Osterholm and other public health experts who have been flooding our airways since March will also weigh the legitimacy of these vaccines. They will be effective advocates for urging the public to put doubts aside and get vaccinated.

Ally Alignment – This is a war for America’s health. Given vaccine resistance, we need a multi-faceted campaign led by allies in healthcare and other sectors, including trusted community leaders. Develop an “influencer map” of supporters and critics. The latter is just as important as the former. You need to understand the board to make successful moves.

Multiple Channels – We are all familiar with the fragmentation of communication and experience it daily with messages from different sources. In a campaign to get America vaccinated, we need to get news across all channels that Americans get their information. Facebook is the main source of news for many people. In addition to traditional media, social media platforms must be used effectively.

Sustainable Campaign – This is not a campaign of a few months, but of a few years and beyond. Changes in public health behavior are slow to occur, and attitudes to vaccination in a deeply divided country will not materialize overnight. The good news is that science usually triumphs in the end.

Nancy Hicks is a healthcare communications consultant who has led health practices at global communications companies, published two books on health communications, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Public Relations Society of America Health Academy.

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