As an exhausted nation looks to 2022 and the end of a pandemic that has taken close to 770,000 American lives, top experts are finally offering some cautious optimism. But given that cases of COVID-19 rose again in most states during November after ebbing in October, there’s likely to be more bad news before the good kicks in.

“The possibility of a winter surge here is very real. And vaccine effectiveness against infection is not as strong as it once was,” Dr. David Dowdy, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, reported during a November 17 media briefing. “We’re likely to see local outbreaks and perhaps winter surges for many years, if not for our lifetimes.”

Medical marketing remains an inherently forward-minded business. Thus it should come as no surprise that it has shifted its pandemic-related communications efforts — both those centered specifically around vaccine acceptance and those pushing broader messages around hygiene and good health practices — into proactive mode.

The Ad Council, which has been at the forefront of vaccine messaging, has enlisted more than 280 national media partners to get the word out. Collectively, its efforts have driven nearly 11 million sessions on Of those who visit the site with concerns, nearly 60% left feeling more confident about getting the jab, the organization reports.

In all, at least 75% of American adults who are eligible for the vaccine have seen its ads, according to Heidi Arthur, chief campaign development officer at the Ad Council.

“We’re following the same strategy we’ve followed since the beginning of the pandemic,” she says. “Once vaccines became readily available, we focused on healthcare professionals, because they were on the frontlines. And now, at the tail end of 2021 and as we think ahead to 2022, we have new efforts underway focused on parents of younger kids.”

In addition, the Ad Council is working with community-based organizations and other trusted voices, such as faith leaders, the NAACP and the Black Coalition Against COVID.

“We’re not flipping a switch and turning it on and off,” Arthur continues. “If we learned anything from this, it’s to plan for the unplanned and be prepared to pivot. It continues to be important to answer the questions on people’s minds and normalize the whole notion of having questions.”

Elyse Margolis, group president at Real Chemistry, has worked on vaccines for more than 20 years. She also worked in Ghana and Indonesia as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Not surprisingly, then, she warns marketers and communicators not to let their feet off the gas.

“As we look at real-world evidence, whether it’s about vaccines or the way diseases are being managed, we’re realizing more and more that it’s not enough to assume we’ve got it covered, whether it’s through marketing or communications or a blend of both,” she explains.

That’s because the country has traditionally looked at diseases “very monolithically,” she says, operating under the assumption that every patient with a particular illness experiences basically the same journey. But with COVID-19, geography, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity have all played key roles.

“Now we’re seeing much more nuance,” says Margolis. As a result of the pandemic, then, the industry is likely to continue its move away from the notion of mass marketing to patients and consumers.

“By taking a much more individual-focused approach, and being led by data, we’ll be able to not only use our resources in much better ways, but we’ll also much more effectively connect with patients so that we can get them from point A to point B more quickly,” Margolis adds.

Another COVID-era learning that marketers are taking to heart is that there’s no such thing as too much access. That’s why, over the course of the next year, communications will be further streamlined.

“Accessibility means giving them the one page they really need to know,” Margolis says. “It’s going the extra mile and making sure all our constituents are able to understand the information we’re putting out there.”

Agencies in particular have had to respond to the conditions across the globe with both nimbleness and sensitivity. To that end, in April 2020, IPG Health launched a new company, YuzuYello, to focus on patient-support services.

As a result, it was able to help clients “fill the void that existed between patients and physicians when they were talking about other aspects related to their health. In the early stages of the COVID lockdown, chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes didn’t go away,” says IPG Health chief commercial officer Mike Guarino.

Expect such support-minded organizations to continue to thrive in 2022. If they’re able to use data and analytics to inform their every communication, all the better.

“In a world where physicians don’t have reps coming into the office, data fills that void,” Guarino adds.

Of course, the primary challenge as the country heads into 2022 is swaying the remaining vaccine holdouts. The problem: There remains a not-so-small part of the population that has rejected every entreaty along those lines, whether gentle urging or get-the-shot-or-lose-your-job mandates.

“No matter what the data says, they’re not going to believe it. In their minds, data is not truth,” Guarino says. “So we as HCPs need to find ways to convince people that this data really is the truth.”

During the November 17 media briefing, Rupali Limaye, director of behavioral and implementation science at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s International Vaccine Access Center, stressed the importance of inoculating kids aged 5 to 11. But she doesn’t think the effort can succeed without yet another attempt to persuade skeptical guardians.

“That’s why it’s still important to provide information to those who have not been vaccinated due to a lack of confidence in vaccines and perhaps concerns about safety, as well as a general distrust in government,” Limaye said. “I would argue that we need to get better at risk communication at different levels, not just public health entities.”

Margolis agrees. “We’re starting to see a different narrative, which is that we can’t do this with a sledgehammer,” she explains. “The most successful campaigns were the ones that really took a dynamic, nuanced approach. They weren’t threatening.”

And, she adds, it’s important to remember that, regardless of how you may personally feel about vaccination, some valid concerns exist. “We’ve never lived in such a big clinical trial involving the whole world,” she explains. “Intelligent people will continue to have questions.”

For a February 2024 article on the Library of Congress collecting COVID-19 stories, click here.