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Vaccines Without Vaccinations Won’t End the Pandemic

COVID-19 vaccine development has advanced at a record-setting pace, thanks to our nation’s longstanding support for basic vaccine science coupled with massive public and private sector investments.

Yet, policymakers aren’t according anywhere near the same level of priority to investments in the social, behavioral, and data science needed to better understand who and what influences vaccination decision-making. “If we want to be sure vaccines become vaccinations, this is exactly the kind of work that’s urgently needed,” says Dr. Bruce Gellin, President of Global Immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute.

Simply put: it’s possible vaccines will remain in refrigerators and not be delivered to the arms of rolled-up sleeves if we don’t quickly ramp up vaccine confidence research and broadly disseminate the findings.

According to the most recent Gallup poll, the share of U.S. adults who say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine rose to 58 percent this month from 50 percent in September, with non-white Americans and those ages 45-65 even less willing to be vaccinated. While there is still much we don’t understand about COVID-19, we do know that without high levels of immunity in the population, a return to some semblance of normalcy is wishful thinking.

Research from prior vaccination campaigns such as H1N1, HPV, and the annual flu points us in the right direction. Key components of successful vaccination efforts require 1) Identifying the concerns of particular segments of the population; 2) Tailoring messages and incentives to address those concerns, and 3) Reaching out through trusted sources – health care providers, public health departments, and others in the community.

Research during the H1N1 flu found preparing people for some uncertainty actually improved trust, according to Dr. Sandra Crouse Quinn, professor and chair, Family Science, University of Maryland. Dr. Crouse Quinn’s research during that period also underscored the need to address the specific vaccine concerns of racial and ethnic groups.

The stunning scientific achievement of COVID-19 vaccines anticipated to be ready in record time needs to be backed up by an equally ambitious and evidence-based effort to build the public’s confidence in the vaccines.

Data science has provided crucial insight about the social media universe. Dr. Neil Johnson, a scientist at George Washington University, found that despite having fewer followers, anti-vaccination pages are more numerous and growing faster than pro-vaccination pages. They are more often linked to in discussions on other Facebook pages – such as school parent associations – where people are undecided about vaccination.

We’ve learned about building vaccine confidence from earlier campaigns. Now, however, we are faced with a unique and challenging set of obstacles to unpack quickly: How do we communicate the importance of eventual COVID-19 vaccines to Americans in light of the muddled-to-poor messaging from political leaders, the weaponizing of relatively simple public health recommendations, the enormous disproportionate toll on people of color, and the torrent of online misinformation? We urgently need data reflective of today’s circumstances along with the policy to ensure it is quickly and effectively disseminated to the public health and clinical workforce.

Last year prompted in part by the measles outbreaks, Reps. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX) and Kim Shrier (D-WA), both physicians, introduced the bipartisan Vaccines Act to develop a national surveillance system to monitor vaccination rates and conduct a national campaign to increase awareness of the importance of vaccines. Unfortunately, that legislation wasn’t passed. In response to COVID-19, Senate HELP Committee Ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) has sought funds to strengthen vaccine confidence and combat misinformation with federally supported communication, research, and outreach efforts. Leading experts outside of Congress have called for this type of research, including the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science Policy Institute. Most recently, the National Academy of Sciences, in its report regarding the equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, included as one of its recommendations the need for “a rapid-response program to advance the science behind vaccine confidence.”

Addressing trust in vaccination has never been as challenging nor as consequential. The stunning scientific achievement of COVID-19 vaccines anticipated to be ready in record time needs to be backed up by an equally ambitious and evidence-based effort to build the public’s confidence in the vaccines. In its remaining days, the Trump Administration should invest in building vaccine confidence with current resources, targeting efforts to ensure COVID vaccines reduce rather than exacerbate racial and ethnic health disparities. Congress must also act to provide the additional research and outreach resources needed as well as pass the Vaccines Act so we are better prepared in the future.

If we don’t succeed, COVID-19 will continue wreaking havoc on our health, our society, and our economy. We will also permanently jeopardize public trust in vaccines – one of the most successful medical interventions in human history.

Written by: Jenny Luray, Vice President of Strategy and Communications for Research!America.