Slow-moving coronavirus vaccine confidence campaign may delay herd immunity

Public health experts encourage urgency in stemming COVID-19 vaccine concerns especially among minorities

Christopher Rodriguez, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, receives a COVID-19 vaccine administered by nurse Rishea Casselle at the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington on Jan. 25, 2021.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Christopher Rodriguez, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, receives a COVID-19 vaccine administered by nurse Rishea Casselle at the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington on Jan. 25, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 8, 2021 at 3:39pm

The United States has a COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy problem, and experts worry the Biden administration’s delay in addressing that now could lead to larger issues later.

The administration is planning a national public-awareness campaign to persuade at least 75 percent of Americans to get vaccinated, but is waiting on that until more COVID-19 vaccine supplies are available. Public demand is much higher than supply now. But that situation will soon flip — and when it does, many vaccines may be left on the shelves if a concerted effort to convince Americans to get the shot is pushed back any further.

"Everybody wants to know, 'When will it be my turn?' You can't say that with any precision yet, but you can provide general timelines and give a sense of where we're going, and that could help the public a lot," said Hemi Tewarson, a senior fellow at Duke University's Margolis Center for Health Policy.

Although it's important to manage expectations, public health experts say the time to start such a campaign is now, even though supplies are low.

“Reaching vaccine-hesitant people now will help them feel more comfortable when it’s time to get vaccinated,” said Jen Kates, Kaiser Family Foundation senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy. “And that work can’t wait.”

A federal effort encouraging people to get vaccinated could help mitigate an anticipated lack of interest in the near future, Kates explained. Vaccines are already very much in the public consciousness and many Americans are searching for information.

In late 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services told reporters it would soon launch a $250 million public education campaign with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to boost confidence in COVID-19 vaccination efforts. The Biden administration still plans to move forward, but its messaging so far has focused on mitigating the virus through mask-wearing and social distancing — not vaccines.

HHS Acting Secretary for Public Affairs Mark Weber, who is leading the COVID-19 federal ad campaign, says the agency will not ramp up its messaging about vaccinations until more people can get shots.

"We are continuing to develop and will roll out new elements of our vaccine campaigns, with more to come in the weeks and months ahead, as more members of the public get access to the vaccine and it becomes even more important to be messaging to the public about the safety and importance of utilization," Weber said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that while the country awaits the start of the vaccine confidence campaign, the administration is trying to get its health experts talking in public as much as possible while also providing information to local medical experts and doctors.

"It takes a little bit of time to get all your ducks in a row to get that going,” Psaki said of the administration's planned large-scale messaging campaign on COVID-19 vaccines.

Weber did not respond to requests for comment on how much of the $250 million has been spent, and would not give details on when spots designed to counter vaccine hesitancy will hit the airwaves.

The United States is expected to receive a surplus of vaccines by late spring. Pfizer expects to deliver 200 million doses of its authorized COVID-19 two-shot vaccine by May, and Moderna plans to deliver another 200 million doses of its own by June.

Johnson & Johnson recently requested emergency authorization for its one-shot vaccine, and a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee will meet on Feb. 26 to evaluate its efficacy.

Polling shows that around half of Americans say they want to get vaccinated.

“Once you’re looking at around 200 million vaccines available for first injections, I think we’re going to run out of demand,” said former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a CNBC interview on Monday. “I think we’re going to run out of demand sooner than we think.”

The number of Americans willing to get vaccinated rises as more of their friends and family do so. A January poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that while 47 percent would be willing to get vaccinated as soon as possible, 31 percent said they wanted to wait and see how the vaccine is working.

Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey found that among Americans who are hesitant to get a vaccine, many are worried about its efficacy or potential side effects. Others say they do not trust vaccines generally, or doubt the government’s ability to distribute them. Black and Hispanic people are much more likely to have concerns about taking the vaccine.

In December, HHS told reporters the campaign would focus on targeting the "moveable middle" — those who are skeptical but not full-on anti-vaxxers. The agency plans to work with state and local partners to target their messaging and advertising to specific communities. For example, a Black community in Chicago may have very different concerns about the vaccine than a rural, white community in West Virginia.

Tara Straw, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who studies the health insurance marketplace operations, noted some parallels between convincing Americans to sign up for health insurance on federal exchanges and convincing them to get a vaccine.

Straw said that convincing people to get insurance could involve challenges similar to vaccinations. The exchanges receive a yearly budget to spread awareness about health insurance enrollment every year. Targeting messages, advertisements, and information ahead of a sign-up period helps convince people they should take action.

“There’s a ramp-up that always needs to happen,” Straw said. “If you hear about something once, how much does it stick in your head?”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.