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Scientists Developed the Vaccines, Communities Must Drive Trust in Vaccinations

Employees sitting 6 ft a part wearing masks

When we look back on the turning point of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may find that some unexpected heroes made all the difference. It could be that your local barber, the mayor of your city, your pastor or your neighbor will be the unsung heroes who helped get 100 million people in the US vaccinated in 100 days or 70 million vaccines in French arms by the end of August. 

Vaccine hesitancy is a significant concern in mitigating COVID-19. A recent study published in Nature Medicine across European nations and the US showed that 26% of European adults indicated hesitance or resistance to a COVID-19 vaccine and that number increased to 31% in the UK and 33% in the US.  

A vaccine-hesitant person may be confused as to who they should trust. Do I trust my physician or my best friend? Should I believe the Facebook page that tells me that the vaccines were “rushed” or the pharmaceutical company’s data? People who report hesitancy relative to the vaccine also mistrust institutions of authority. They may be more receptive to messages regarding COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy if delivered by individuals within non-traditional positions of authority and expertise.  

Many are quick to cast those hesitant individuals as misinformed, naïve, or worse, conspiracy theorists. Yet, a more thoughtful consideration of what's driving their concerns can go a long way toward bringing people closer to acceptance. Here are some approaches to closing the gap: 

Understand individual concerns: Both rational and emotional factors inform perceptions of the risks and benefits of vaccination. Move the conversation from pure facts and science to a more human and emotional context – (“tell me why you are worried and let me share why I am worried that you are not vaccinated”).  

Explain with empathy: Leave the science to the scientists and health professionals. Let them answer questions about how the vaccine is made, how safety is assessed and monitored, and the likelihood of side effects. Other trusted voices, such as employers, community leaders, friends and family, and spiritual leaders can create connection and acceptance sharing their personal reasons for taking the vaccine and their concern that the hesitant individual be protected as well.  

Leverage community networks: There’s power in tapping into community networks to share information through existing authentic connections. For example, spiritual leaders can address fears and concerns as trusted voices in the community and can empathetically acknowledge worries while sharing facts. Mom groups or local gyms can bring in guest speakers to help answer questions and allay concerns. This means that public health leaders must keep respected community voices updated with simple and clear information. Educating social media influencers with large followings can have a similar impact. 

Use social media responsibly: Research shows that many vaccine-resistant individuals are less likely to consume and trust information from “traditional” media and more likely to obtain information from social media channels. Public health officials, local community leaders and individual practicing physicians must share information via multiple media channels. Messages should focus on the personal benefits of vaccination against COVID-19 to them, their families and their immediate communities. Content posted on social media should be factual and friendly, a visual, simple, direct, and positively orientated, acknowledging that people have concerns and guiding them toward resources that can provide clear answers. We’ve seen celebrities and political leaders share videos in which they receive the vaccine, but a video of your personal experience can be more impactful within your own social network. 

Connect the Community: The increasing lack of confidence in the government's abilities to solve problems provides an opportunity for employers, community-based organizations, and NGOs to step forward and take on a powerful role. They can emphasize community resilience and connectedness, taking the best of science and medicine and combining it with compassionate, locally-led efforts. Imagine the value delivered by an employer who invites a well-known local health professional to speak and answer questions at a town hall meeting or a local drug store chain that offers its pharmacists to local media to ensure that the community understands the facts. The result is a greater collective commitment to community well-being and health equity. Addressing concerns about the value and safety of vaccines requires a focus on both rational and emotional appeals, and the use of non-traditional channels and unexpected voices. Engaging communities and individuals in authentic conversations about health concerns should be the first step in overcoming anxiety and mistrust. So, if you know someone who is unsure, consider scheduling a visit to an informed barber. 

Ame Wadler is Managing Director of Global Health at Zeno Group. 


LinkedIn: Ame Wadler

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