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Vaccine distribution

How to communicate effectively based on COVID-19 vaccine perception

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    Jannet Park
  • Apr 30, 2021

Vaccine perception and hesitancy have major public health implications. Understanding those perceptions can enable your digital communications strategy to positively impact vaccine distribution.

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Vaccines have become highly politicized and the subject of rampant misinformation, an issue public health experts have worked to solve since well before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Now, with mass distribution of COVID-19 vaccines taking place worldwide, the issue of vaccine hesitancy has reared its head in new and challenging ways. Though data indicates that the COVID-19 vaccines are largely safe and effective, some people feel a lack of certainty about whether they will choose to receive one.

From hospitals and medical offices to nonprofits and government agencies, every institution with a role in public health has the power to better inform the public about vaccines. To do so, they can rely on strategic and empathetic communication designed to provide answers, develop trust, and create lasting avenues for education.

From understanding perceptions to addressing them effectively, we’ve outlined how your organization can successfully communicate with users via digital channels to assist in vaccine distribution.

Understanding vaccine hesitancy

According to a report from the World Health Organization’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE), vaccine hesitancy is “a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services.” It seems simple, but unraveling vaccine hesitancy is incredibly complex. 

Location, gender, religion, political affiliation, and many other characteristics can all play varying and intersecting roles in vaccine hesitancy. For example, recent polling indicates how voting history, education, and race can have an impact on one’s view of vaccines, and analysis from ABC News shows that where someone lives might be the most significant determinant.

What does that mean for your organization? Primarily, vaccine perceptions cannot be addressed from a monolithic viewpoint. Organizations must be willing to learn, adapt, and meet individuals where they are. 

The SAGE report identifies three elements—complacency, convenience, and confidence—that should remain at the center of how you understand vaccine perception, and how you move toward communicating about it effectively with people you serve.

Complacency: Understanding the role of vaccines in public health

Perception: “It’s not urgent for me to get the COVID-19 vaccine.”

In 2001, the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) identified complacency as a likely cause of a measles outbreak in the Seattle area. Complacency often comes from a lack of awareness around the important role vaccines play in public health, and it can have devastating consequences. “Unfortunately,” IAC wrote in their report, “the reality check often comes in the form of an outbreak of disease.”

Today’s circumstances differ. It may seem the sense of urgency in being vaccinated would be more apparent. As of this writing, only about 30 percent of the American population are fully vaccinated (find up-to-date numbers here). Successful herd immunity requires a minimum of 70 percent of the population to be vaccinated, preferably more—meaning the U.S. is less than halfway to reaching it. 

Even if someone works from home, lives alone, or doesn’t plan on attending crowded spaces, vaccination is still urgent: experts recommend that everyone get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.

One way to create a sense of urgency and counter complacency is by sending your constituents or patients regular alerts, notifications, and personalized communications about the importance of vaccination. Healthcare providers, insurers, and public health organizations can use their existing communication channels to share the importance of vaccination and empower recipients to have a positive impact on public health.

SMS is a particularly powerful tool to spur patients to action and change behaviors. The Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems, based at the University of California, San Diego, found that text interactions are an effective tool to promote healthy behaviors across the board. CareMessage has similarly found that communicating via SMS can make users more likely to make and keep appointments for essential medical care. 

Convenience: Accounting for user preference and access

Perception: “Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is complicated, difficult, and inconvenient.”

Many people want to get vaccinated as soon as possible, but complicated scheduling interfaces and a lack of accessible tools mean they may face unnecessary delays. Seniors, those without broadband access at home, those without smartphones, and many more groups can also face more significant hurdles.

Initiatives like The Digital Compañero Program are working to make digital tools and information more widely available by meeting users where they are—rather than expecting them to download a new app or navigate a new technology in order to access vital resources. To reach audiences effectively, organizations should identify preferred and accessible channels for the communities they serve.

One of the most reliable ways to reach a wide audience is via messaging through channels like SMS or WhatsApp. With SMS, messaging experiences can be personalized by utilizing local numbers to help build familiarity and can reach those without a smartphone or broadband access. WhatsApp can create greater accessibility for global users who are more accustomed to that channel versus more traditional methods. 

Organizations like St. Luke’s have also found success with VoIP and contact center solutions as a way to register for, schedule, or send reminders about COVID-19 vaccination. St. Luke’s launched their “Shot-Line” in just two weeks, and have been able to schedule far more vaccine appointments for patients thanks to automated features and multilingual functionalities.   

Confidence: Addressing personal health questions and concerns

Perception: “I’m not sure if COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.”

Confidence is perhaps the most complex aspect of vaccine hesitation. While you may not be able to positively influence every user’s perception of the COVID-19 vaccine, you can give them the information they need to dispel myths and point them toward credible information sources. 

Solutions like intuitive voice response (IVR) systems, chat bots, and more can provide self-serve channels to address concerns around vaccination. Automated features can handle common questions at scale, provide access to information, and help close the divide between public health experts and the public. When building these types of solutions, you can use guides from the CDC on common myths and misconceptions, information on the vaccine testing process, and up-to-date safety/efficacy facts in order to equip your users with as much knowledge as possible.

Door-to-door efforts are also incredibly valuable in educating harder-to-reach communities. Cities like Detroit and Hampton Roads, Virginia have implemented field teams to visit senior living facilities and communities of color to provide up-to-date information and help answer any questions residents may have. They are able to have a conversation on the spot and get the residents scheduled for a vaccine right there. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations alike can implement field service solutions to communicate with their teams on the ground to organize these essential efforts to ensure no person is left behind in vaccine education efforts.

By addressing the three key factors of complacency, convenience, and confidence through a digital communications strategy, organizations can help overcome vaccine hesitancy and positively impact the communities they serve.

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Jannet Park

Jannet Park is a solutions marketer for Twilio.org, working alongside mission-driven organizations using technology to create positive change and action in the world.