If health and government officials want more people to get vaccinated against COVID- 19, they’re going to have to elevate their messaging.
Although there’s probably little hope in getting entrenched anti-vaxxers and recalcitrant conspiracy theorists to change their made-up minds, there’s likelihood of getting those on the fence to get inoculated if the message isn’t so dispiriting.
It’s a reasonable question to ask: What’s the point of getting vaccinated if we have to keep doing the same things — masking, distancing and not traveling?
“It’s a lot like advising that you wear a condom, but because they’re not 100 percent effective, you should also refrain from having intercourse,” wrote Jim Sollisch in a March 7 opinion piece for cleveland.com. “Not a very compelling message if you want people to use condoms.”
Sollisch acknowledges he isn’t an epidemiologist. He’s a partner and executive creative director for the advertising agency Marcus Thomas LLC in Cleveland. He’s an ad guy.
But Sollisch, understanding the zeitgeist, is onto something.
“I look for audiences that are persuadable,” he said. “And then I think, ‘What can I tell them that will make them open their minds a bit?’”
Sollisch isn’t advocating lying and hyping the vaccines. What he wants is messaging grounded in reality, not gloom and overzealous “abundance of caution.” Health and governmental officials haven’t done enough to tout the victories in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech vaccines are 95 percent effective in preventing symptomatic illness and nearly 100 percent effective in preventing severe cases, he said. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is lower in prevention but also very effective at preventing severe illness.
“Which means that vaccinated people who get COVID-19 will suffer nothing worse than symptoms similar to a bad cold or normal flu,” he said, citing science.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s post-vaccine guidelines don’t do much to sell those who are undecided or unmotivated to get vaccines, largely because there isn’t enough research about whether people vaccinated can still be a “silent spreader.”
But there’s reason to hope there, too. Pfizer on March 11 announced its mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 was 94 percent effective at preventing the asymptomatic transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.
“It looks like 90 percent reduction in asymptomatic transmission,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, in a March 12 USA Today article. “So that’s really good.”
But what about the virus variants? Those variants only make the vaccines more essential, health officials say.
So far, studies suggest antibodies generated through inoculation with the authorized vaccines do recognize new variants and can be effective, although vaccine makers already are working on boosters, according to reports. But the loud-and-clear message should be vaccination with the existing supply will help combat variants.
One reason the virus is throwing out variants and will continue to do so is because relatively few people globally have been vaccinated, said Dr. Norman Baylor, a former director of the FDA’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review, who was quoted in a March 17 article in an online publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association. “This virus is like, ‘Yep, I’ve got plenty of people I can infect, and the more I replicate, the more I can mutate.”
The CDC’s guidelines allow for fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing. And the guidelines allow the vaccinated to visit people from a single household who are low risk for severe COVID-19 indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing. And those vaccinated can refrain from quarantine and testing after a known exposure if asymptomatic.
That’s all a good start. But the CDC also recommends the vaccinated continue taking precautions in public, including well-fitted masks, physical distancing and avoiding medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings. And this makes the skeptics throw up their hands in frustration.
“The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet,” Zeynep Tufekci said in a Feb. 26 opinion piece in The Atlantic. Tufekci isn’t a doctor, but an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. She studies the interaction between digital technology, artificial intelligence and society.
“It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines,” Tufekci said. “There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion — distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe.”
Hope is what’s going to get us through, she said.
What the public needs to hear is the good news about the vaccine and how we’re on the verge of going back to normal. Not the new normal, or the always-looking-over-our-shoulder normal. But the normal we knew before the pandemic.
“We need to let people know that getting a vaccine will almost immediately change their lives for the better, and why, and also when and how increased vaccination will change more than their individual risks and opportunities, and see us out of this pandemic,” Tufekci wrote.
We should continue to take precautions until more people are vaccinated. Those unvaccinated should especially heed health guidelines. But more people won’t get vaccinated unless the message is this: “There’s light at the end of this dark, long and winding tunnel, reminding us what miracles the vaccines are and the freedoms they’ll restore.”
• Laura Elder