That giant exhaling sound you heard in early November was most of the country releasing a long-held half-sigh at the news that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was proving to be 95% effective in preventing the virus, and that frontline healthcare workers could well be getting their first dose of the two-shot protocol before the end of this no-good, stinking, horrible year. The additional news that Moderna’s vaccine was 94.5% effective caused a partial release of the rest of that held-in breath. At long last, there was some light at the end of the long coronavirus tunnel. 

But for our industry, the hard work is just beginning. While our colleagues in the laboratories have worked around the clock for months in what is nothing short of an AI-driven Manhattan Project, the vaccine is being released into a perfect storm of distrust and division that could well impede its success. 

Specifically, disinformation spread by anti-vaxxers, virus deniers and those who flat-out don’t believe or trust medical science could create a whirlwind of misinformation — let’s call it BS, which it is — that prevents the vaccine from reaching an audience broad enough to create a level of immunity that tames COVID-19. We went down this road in 2019, when measles outbreaks in un-immunized populations caused New York City to declare a health emergency.

This time we face a tougher task. We must work together to somehow convince the 42% of Americans who told a STAT/Harris Poll survey they would not get vaccinated as soon as they could. (Those numbers are from October, and they are sliding; in August, only 31% said they wouldn’t get immunized.) And while some of the reluctance may come from fear that the vaccine was rushed through safety protocols, it’s far more likely that people think it won’t work, or, even worse, will ultimately harm them.

I don’t have the answers for how to overcome this problem. You’d think that seeing the damage the pandemic has caused — and just how truly sick some people become — would be enough. But unless that experience is firsthand, so many people just won’t believe that what they see online or on TV is real. We have to figure out how to solve multiple communication problems at the same time.

This will be the second phase of Operation Warp Speed. And it requires the efforts of everyone in this industry. Prepare to get to work. And here’s hoping we can work in person.