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The COVID cure: How can health systems successfully advocate for the vaccine?

November’s news of an effective coronavirus vaccine came as an immense relief. Finally, after months and months of COVID-19’s ravages, there was light at the end of the tunnel.

At least, that was the perspective of many Americans. Many others, it would turn out, came to feel quite differently.

A sizeable proportion of the population has a much more muted response to the vaccine. They’re skeptical about its value, worried about its side-effects, or otherwise leery about an immunization product that went from planning to distribution in less than a year.

But who feels this way? Why do they feel this way? And, critically, what can healthcare leaders do about it?

This article will draw upon NRC Health’s Market Insights data to address these questions.

The vaccine survey

Since successful trials were announced in October, NRC Health has carefully tracked evolving public opinion on the vaccine. With an n-size of nearly 25,000 people, NRC’s survey captures the sentiments of a large and broad cross-section of the American population.

And its data shows that the public is much more ambivalent about the vaccine than healthcare leaders might have hoped.

Who’s ready for the vaccine

First, the good news: 29% of respondents are unabashedly enthusiastic about the vaccine. They will get it as soon as they are able.

That’s a respectable proportion—but it leaves a majority who are far less likely to jump at the chance of immunization.

Of those respondents remaining, 31% may get the vaccine later, but are waiting to see how it affects others first. 25% are not sure if they will ever get it. And 13.9% have outright declared that they will never get the vaccine at all.

Why consumers hesitate

To clinicians and public-health experts, these results might seem mystifying. The importance of immunization couldn’t be more straightforward, and the evidence supporting recently developed vaccinations is overwhelmingly strong. Why, then, do such a plurality of consumers show so much hesitation?

For most consumers, the answer is about timing: 50.7% of respondents worry that the development of today’s COVID-19 vaccines was rushed. 46.9% also expressed concerns about potential side effects, a worry related to suspicions of over-hasty development.

And 15.6% were worried about the cost.

Advocating for the vaccine

These figures may well give leaders cause for concern. Putting a halt to the pandemic requires at least 80% of the population to receive the vaccine.

If over 40% of consumers are disinclined to receive it, does that mean that population-wide immunity is out of reach?

Fortunately, health systems may be able to influence this outcome in the right direction.

Throughout the pandemic, local healthcare institutions have always been the public’s most trusted source for reliable COVID-19 information. If healthcare leaders make effective use of this role, they may be able to persuade wary consumers to take the plunge.

To do that, they will have to systematically address the sources of consumer hesitation.

Here are some data-based avenues for intervention.

1) Explain the vaccine’s speedy development

In some ways, the public is right to believe that the COVID-19’s development was “rushed.”

Initiated under a federal government program called “Operation Warp Speed,” the three currently available COVID-19 vaccinations were developed faster than any other vaccine in history. While most vaccines take two to four years to develop, the three COVID-19 vaccines were completed in less than 8 months—and concerned members of the public might well be wondering how that could have been achieved responsibly.

But there is an answer: a brand-new vaccine technology.

In an incredible stroke of luck, a novel method of vaccine delivery came to maturity just as COVID-19 arrived on American shores. Previous vaccines relied on isolating virus samples, rendering them inert, and delivering the virus into the bloodstream. This was a time-consuming process, as each inert virus took time to “train” the body’s immune response to combat specimens of the virus.

The new method, by contrast, uses messenger RNA to instruct human cells on how to respond to the coronavirus. It’s a much more direct method of delivery—and importantly, the vaccines it makes possible are much less time-intensive to produce.

This is something consumers today need to understand.

Explaining this technology to members of the public may be a challenge for communications. But it will ultimately help them to understand why the COVID-19 vaccine came so quickly, and put them at greater ease in receiving it.

2) Explain the data on side effects

It must be remembered that the general public doesn’t always have the training—or the scientific literacy—that healthcare workers do. They’re not as equipped to dissect data or discern its implications.

And they are much less likely to have read detailed firsthand studies of the vaccine’s potential side effects.

The task of explaining these, therefore, falls to healthcare providers.

Some important points to emphasize:

–  The messenger-RNA delivery method means that no live vaccine ever enters the patient’s body. There is zero chance of COVID-19 transmission from the vaccine injection.

– The overwhelming majority of vaccine test subjects experienced only mild side effects. Some patients reported feeling fatigue, a headache, or some muscle soreness—as do many recipients of the flu vaccine each year. But as in those cases, the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine completely resolved within a day or two.

3) Be sensitive to specific populations

Finally, it’s also important to note who, in particular, remains especially doubtful about the vaccine. Breaking the data down by demographic reveals important trends.

The ethnic groups with the largest proportions of people who said they will never get the vaccine are African Americans (at 23.3%) and Native Americans (at 23.6%).

When advocating with these groups, organizations should take care to remember some of the historical complications that might make the task a challenge.

In years past, both Native Americans and African Americans were subjected to horrific abuses in the guise of institutional medicine. As a result, mistrust of certain aspects of government administration lingers in some of these communities today.

When communicating the benefits of the vaccine, it’s important not to invalidate these concerns. Instead, organizations should be aware that it may take more time and more deliberate outreach to earn these communities’ trust.

All the same, advocating for the vaccine with these groups should reflect the same general messaging as with any other group: an emphasis on the efficacy, the mild side effects, and the remarkable technology behind the creation of the vaccine.

Take a deeper dive

With the COVID-19 vaccine, healthcare organizations have the chance to be part of a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Preventing the spread of the coronavirus has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

But the success of that effort will depend on organizations’ ability to earn the trust of consumers—which, as ever, will depend on how well organizations understand them.

To better understand how your consumers are feeling about COVID-19 or the COVID-19 vaccine, we invite you to take a deeper look into our sentiment data, available here.