STAT News

Science alone cannot beat the pandemic. We also need outreach about a Covid-19 vaccine

July 27, 2020

By Bill Frist, Richard Pan, and Max G. Bronstein

Americans anxiously await two key benefits that a Covid-19 vaccine will deliver: freedom from fear and a return to normal.

No single vaccine is likely to offer a panacea for this pandemic. And even if it did, it might not accomplish its job if we don’t deal with hesitance to get vaccinated and counter vaccine disinformation. By failing to do these things, we risk a perpetual cycle of infectious disease coupled with persistent economic decline.

Now is the time to make sure that all residents of the U.S. understand the value of a Covid-19 vaccine and the necessity of getting one.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccination conspiracy theories have flourished, fueled by a potent combination of fear, misinformation, and social media amplification. According to new polling data, among adults who have heard of one or more Covid-19 conspiracy theories, 36% believe it to be probably or definitely true.

At first, many health professionals dismissed vaccine conspiracy theories as outlandish and unbelievable. Yet additional polling data indicates 20% of Americans would outright refuse a Covid-19 vaccine and 31% are unsure as to whether they would get vaccinated.

In essence, conspiracy theories and anti-vax sentiment have reached the American mainstream, even as researchers and health care professionals are making progress toward effective treatments, with some Covid-19 vaccine candidates already showing positive results.

Our nation is hurtling toward a future where our scientific prowess makes preventing Covid-19 possible yet a substantial proportion of Americans may be unwilling to accept or avail themselves of these scientific breakthroughs, thereby continuing to fuel the global pandemic. We are already witnessing this problem with the refusal of a significant number of Americans to wear face coverings to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.

To effectively beat Covid-19 we will need solutions beyond those furnished by science.

Most Americans have a high level of trust in their personal medical providers, whether they are doctors, nurses, or physician assistants. These medical professionals should proactively reach out to their patients and discuss the potential benefits and risks of a Covid-19 vaccine before one becomes publicly available. This personal touch could go a long way in helping patients make a more informed and balanced decision with input from a trusted medical expert.

This could take many forms. It could become a standard — and essential — part of clinicians’ telehealth or in-person visits. Clinicians could reach out by email or letter to explain the benefits of vaccination against Covid-19, while addressing any potential concerns that patients may have about potential side effects. In addition to engaging individual patients, we encourage healthcare providers to seek out venues in which larger groups could be better informed about the benefits of a Covid-19 vaccine. In particular, local parent-teacher association meetings, town halls, or other virtual gatherings are opportunities to provide up-to-date and scientifically sound advice. These messages should highlight that vaccines benefit not only the individual but also family and friends, a message that preliminary evidence has been shown to be effective.

We must also invest in grassroots public outreach campaigns to communities in which vaccine hesitancy and skepticism are prevalent. On social media, false information spreads faster than true information. Coupled with public skepticism of government and public health officials, that poses a big challenge.

Heavy-handed, dry, and regulated government messaging won’t be effective in a world where public opinion is ruled by tweets and sound bites. The messaging must be designed specifically for social media and carried by nontraditional messengers, like local and national celebrities, religious leaders, and other influencers with broad reach. These messengers would serve as an important counterpoint to some of the unfounded conspiracy theories that have propagated online.

On top of these efforts, social media companies must partner with public health experts to curb the spread of misinformation, expose the falsehoods driving vaccine hesitancy, and stop groups that incite attacks or violence directed at public health officials. Partnering with expert reviewers has been leveraged by Wikipedia via trusted editors. Others have suggested crowdsourcing approaches to help ensure the veracity of online claims. Social media has given us wondrous new, lightning-fast communication tools, and these assets need to drive evidence-based messaging that advances public health and ultimately, helps save lives.

With the surge in Covid-19 cases, it’s clear that we need to rewrite the pandemic strategy and playbook. Federal and state governments should do more to partner with the private sector to help America achieve community immunity. We simply cannot get there without investing in targeted, grassroots outreach campaigns to encourage the uptake of a Covid-19 vaccine while at the same time moderating purveyors of disinformation.

Beating Covid-19 will require nontraditional partnerships and new communication styles that will resonate with the American public and, at the end of the day, win hearts and minds.

Bill Frist is a physician, former Republican Senate majority leader from Tennessee, chairman of the executive council of the health care investment firm Cressey & Company, senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and a co-chairman of the center’s work on health innovation. Richard Pan is a pediatrician representing Sacramento in the California State Senate and chairs the Senate Committee on Health. Max G. Bronstein is the founder of the Journal of Science Policy & Governance. He was previously senior director of health policy and corporate affairs at Audentes Therapeutics and chief advocacy and science policy officer at the EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases.