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Government’s pandemic response killed vaccine acceptance

Government’s pandemic response killed vaccine acceptance

Government’s pandemic response killed vaccine acceptance
October 08
14:00 2021

Turn on the news and the discourse is focused entirely on the anti-vaccination movement slowing down the rate needed for herd immunity. But is it their fault the government has not been transparent at every step?

Early in the pandemic, the government’s position on masks was contrary to what it is now. Mask wearing was ineffective and could even be a vector for the transmission itself, then Surgeon General Jerome Adams said. A week later, he clarified his remarks, claiming improper mask-wearing could be a vector and he didn’t want to encourage the hoarding of personal protective equipment. 

The single best predictor for vaccine acceptance is trust — the trust in government in political authorities, according to a study from Aarhus University in Denmark. A lack of confidence in the government creates an environment ripe for conspiratorial thinking and a lack of concern for COVID-19.

Even when it comes to vaccines themselves, government messaging has been vague. These messages also lower trust and create an environment for conspiracy theories. Adverse effects can and do happen, as they do for other vaccines. As the virus continues to spread, the current target strain may be less dominant in the wild, and be less effective against new strains.

While some government officials worry that accepting all of the faults of the vaccines will jeopardize acceptance, governments should be fully transparent on what is known and unknown about the vaccine to increase trust, a study from Aarhus University shows. Even if transparency might lower the uptake of vaccines, the discovery will have a bigger negative impact when the truth does come out. 

The truth did come out on the approved vaccines, and it differed from the narrative from political leaders. Boosters are recommended for people who live or work in high-risk settings, especially for those with underlying medical conditions and seniors according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Concerns range from the potential risks of blood clots associated with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, to chills and fever in the Moderna and Pfizer.

Perhaps the most troubling truth is among those who have already lost trust, relaying health communication is ineffective. However, there is reason to hope. People who need more information before taking the vaccine are skeptical but they are also wary of misinformation, according to a study from the University of Utah.

In this regard, the CDC has done a good job at targeting its message by providing resources to learn. The groups that do endorse misinformation are those with a high needle sensitivity and those concerned with impacts on their bodily autonomy. The CDC is missing the target. The previously mentioned study showed that informing hesitant people on the safety of the vaccine was linked to the spread of more misinformation among those with high needle sensitivity.

Public service announcements have targeted social factors, such as exclusion, due to their effectiveness at changing behavior. We have seen this work in driving back the coolness of smoking, where advertisements cull the personal anxiety of death. Current pleas to get vaccinated should target those social factors since fear of death from the virus is linked to higher anxiety on the virus itself, an Israeli study shows.

The science is clear as to what message should be used to get vaccinated, but government and late-night talk show hosts are getting in the way with their personal safety message and pure cringe. Stephen Colbert does realize that for social messaging to work, a segment needs to make the audience believe it is effective on someone else. Making an animated vaccine dance and sing is disturbing, and the audience seems to agree, with 27 thousand dislikes. Messaging should be sincere, personal, emphasizing social benefits and come from people who do not have financial or societal gain in mind or appearance to their audience.

The messaging throughout the COVID-19 pandemic was focused on the short-term gain early on with masks and the vaccine rollout. In the long-term, the truth led some to lose trust in government, and into a state where health communication is of no persuasion. Still, the government had an opportunity to target those skeptical by reducing thoughts of death and a focus on social benefits. On that too, they failed. 

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

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Chris Sotelo

Chris Sotelo

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