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OPINION

An effective COVID-19 vaccine is on the horizon. We need to support vaccine advocacy

Public health experts can reduce fear and build public support.

A health worker delivers an injection during clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine at Research Centers of America, in Hollywood, Fla., on Sept. 9.
A health worker delivers an injection during clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine at Research Centers of America, in Hollywood, Fla., on Sept. 9.Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

In the past week, the world has undergone a seismic shift. On Saturday, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were confirmed as winners of the election for president and vice president, ushering in a new era of science and reason. On Monday, Pfizer announced that its COVID-19 vaccine is 90 percent effective, with no serious safety concerns reported.

This is wonderful news. Yet we in public health will still have our work cut out for us to maximize uptake of the eventual COVID-19 vaccine. That means not only ensuring any approved vaccines have been proved safe and effective in large-scale clinical trials — but also educating Americans about that fact.

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According to a new study from the COVID Collaborative, the majority of Americans understand that a vaccine is critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Yet only 25 percent of Americans surveyed are planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it’s offered; about 3 in 5 Americans say they’ll take a “wait and see” approach instead.

Here are five ways public health experts can reduce fear and build public support for the vaccine before it is licensed and ready for distribution:

We need the right messengers. More than 70 percent of people who are undecided about getting a COVID-19 vaccine say that they will be more likely to do so if encouraged by top scientists and physicians. A vast majority — Republicans and Democrats alike — say they trust their own doctor most when it comes to information about the vaccine. These health experts will be important advocates for vaccination and thus need assurance that current clinical trials are being conducted rigorously and transparently.

We need the right messages. That means accounting for the fact that some groups of people have different hesitations about the vaccine. Black Americans, along with women, Republicans, and younger Americans, all report greater hesitancy to get vaccinated because they believe that political pressure will lead to premature approval of a vaccine. We will need a specific outreach strategy to connect with each of these constituencies, identify their specific fears, and alleviate them.

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We need to emphasize what’s at stake. We have to focus not just on fears about the vaccine but also fears about the virus itself. More than 7 in 10 Americans say they are worried about the vulnerability of their family members, particularly their children and the elderly. With that in mind, and as the COVID Collaborative survey corroborates, framing the COVID-19 vaccination as every American’s responsibility to their loved ones is a powerful motivator.

We need to get the initial limited vaccine supply to those at highest risk. Americans overwhelmingly support a priority system for vaccine distribution to health care workers, first responders, people with serious medical conditions, and elderly people living in nursing homes. Solidifying and implementing a multi-phase distribution plan backed by strong state-level leadership will help depoliticize the vaccine conversation.

Vaccines need to be affordable and accessible. To be most effective to the greater community, they need to be free of charge, and all barriers to access must be eliminated.

Stopping the spread of the coronavirus won’t be possible unless everyone is protected. And that would be public health at its best.

Julia W. Wu is a principal investigator at the Human Immunomics Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Michelle A. Williams is dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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