The White House is preparing to launch a widespread communications effort designed to increase vaccine confidence among Americans – and it’s being touted by President Biden as one of the most ambitious public health campaigns in history.
The campaign will tap funds from the recently passed $1.9 trillion stimulus bill and will be rolled out in tandem with a push to make all U.S. adults eligible for vaccination by May 1.
According to Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, the campaign stakes are extremely high. “With trillions and trillions of dollars lost in our economy, and millions of people previously employed now unemployed, getting our society back to some semblance of normality is an obvious and huge priority,” he said. “The most efficient way to get there is vaccination.”
Nobody believes the effort will be anything less than a slog, however, given the current politicization of all things vaccine-related. “It’s hard to sustain classic public health measures that require a large amount of public cooperation,” Vermund noted.
The campaign aims to battle vaccine hesitancy, whether it’s fueled by concerns about side effects, misinformation or religious and political beliefs. It will target three groups that have been identified as vaccine-hesitant: conservatives, young people and people of color. Each group is motivated by a different set of concerns, so campaign messaging will need to be specifically tailored.
Recent data from Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, which examines the public’s beliefs and concerns about vaccination, revealed major schisms in the attitudes of Americans who want to get the vaccine as soon as possible, those who plan to wait and see, and those who will definitely not receive the vaccine. It also examined the concerns among different demographics. For example, the data show that 47% of all Black adults said side effects were their biggest concern. Among low-income communities in general, concerns over getting to appointments without losing hours of work were common.
That’s why public health experts stress that the communications campaign cannot be anything resembling a one-size-fits-all marketing blitz. While details haven’t been disclosed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has started distributing parts of its vaccine confidence playbook and holding vaccine confidence consultations with local leaders and jurisdictions.
The CDC also recently published its Rapid Community Assessment Guide, which aims to help state and local health departments identify communities likely to resist vaccination. As part of its efforts, the CDC is working with the Ad Council and The Creative Coalition to push out messaging in creative ways.
To that end, The Creative Coalition’s Blue Ribbon Task Force will lead an effort to connect leaders in the arts and entertainment communities to generate awareness and share information education about COVID-19 vaccines
“We are believers that artists and creatives are the best messengers,” said Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk. “A number of the greatest medical minds in the country will work with us to make sure the messages are appropriate. The raw data and information we’re getting will be from the CDC, and we’re going to take that and work with leadership within the Latinx community, the African American community and rural areas, to make sure the most resonating messages are out there.”
While the U.S. has faced its share of public health crises, from the 1918 flu pandemic to polio, very few have been attacked aggressively via an effort like the vaccine confidence campaign on the table.
“We’ve been down this path many times in American history before,” he noted, pointing to a mass vaccination campaign designed to combat the 1947 smallpox outbreak in New York City. Daily radio addresses led by Dr. Israel Weinstein, the city’s health commissioner, were the main avenue of communication to encourage New Yorkers to get vaccinated. And they worked.
Dr. Barron Lerner, a professor in the department of medicine at New York University, noted that the current campaign is unprecedented owing to its scale and sophistication, even when compared to past efforts attempting to stem AIDS, polio, cancer and tuberculosis. The federal government, he noted, rarely leads similarly sized public health campaigns, so the White House push represents a major break from business as usual.
“There are aspects of what they’re trying to do, such as using media and celebrities, that past vaccine campaigns have used,” he explained. “There’s more attention now, quite appropriately, to issues of underserved communities. This campaign is a million times more sophisticated than some of these earlier campaigns.”
But while the country has grappled with major disease outbreaks before, it hasn’t done so amid such a highly partisan climate. Conservatives comprise a large part of the 15% of Americans who say they will refuse to take the vaccine, Vermund noted. Given the fragmented media landscape, with many vaccine-hesitant individuals indifferent to politicians or celebrities who don’t share their political views, any PR effort targeting wide swaths of people is a heavy lift.
“In recent years, we’ve politicized public health,” Vermund said. “It hasn’t been as partisan as it is now. There’s this huge gap by political party, which is really extreme.”
Lerner agreed that bridging this gap represents a huge challenge. “You have a fractured country and you have extremely strong opinions,” he said. “You can’t do what you used to do in the past. A feel-good campaign – that’s something that couldn’t work today.”
The current effort will instead harness trusted leaders in conservative or religious communities – such as Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health – to communicate with vaccine-skeptical white evangelical Christians. Collins recently did an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, during which he categorized the vaccines as a gift from God.
“Pastors, country music stars, other people who have respect in those communities – if those folks can step up to the plate and help assuage concerns, that would go a long way in helping,” Vermund stressed.
Ultimately, he hopes the campaign gets across the point that public health is no longer an issue that requires taking a political side. “We who are in the public health field see vaccines as non-partisan,” Vermund added. “That’s where we’d like to get back to: a broad alliance and consensus that unnecessary deaths and suffering are things we’d like to alleviate. That should not be a partisan stand; that should be an American stand.”