Americans anxiously await two key benefits that a Covid-19 vaccine will deliver: freedom from fear and a return to normal.

No single vaccine is likely to offer a panacea for this pandemic. And even if it did, it might not accomplish its job if we don’t deal with hesitance to get vaccinated and counter vaccine disinformation. By failing to do these things, we risk a perpetual cycle of infectious disease coupled with persistent economic decline.

Now is the time to make sure that all residents of the U.S. understand the value of a Covid-19 vaccine and the necessity of getting one.

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Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccination conspiracy theories have flourished, fueled by a potent combination of fear, misinformation, and social media amplification. According to new polling data, among adults who have heard of one or more Covid-19 conspiracy theories, 36% believe it to be probably or definitely true.

At first, many health professionals dismissed vaccine conspiracy theories as outlandish and unbelievable. Yet additional polling data indicates 20% of Americans would outright refuse a Covid-19 vaccine and 31% are unsure as to whether they would get vaccinated.

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In essence, conspiracy theories and anti-vax sentiment have reached the American mainstream, even as researchers and health care professionals are making progress toward effective treatments, with some Covid-19 vaccine candidates already showing positive results.

Our nation is hurtling toward a future where our scientific prowess makes preventing Covid-19 possible yet a substantial proportion of Americans may be unwilling to accept or avail themselves of these scientific breakthroughs, thereby continuing to fuel the global pandemic. We are already witnessing this problem with the refusal of a significant number of Americans to wear face coverings to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.

To effectively beat Covid-19 we will need solutions beyond those furnished by science.

Most Americans have a high level of trust in their personal medical providers, whether they are doctors, nurses, or physician assistants. These medical professionals should proactively reach out to their patients and discuss the potential benefits and risks of a Covid-19 vaccine before one becomes publicly available. This personal touch could go a long way in helping patients make a more informed and balanced decision with input from a trusted medical expert.

This could take many forms. It could become a standard — and essential — part of clinicians’ telehealth or in-person visits. Clinicians could reach out by email or letter to explain the benefits of vaccination against Covid-19, while addressing any potential concerns that patients may have about potential side effects. In addition to engaging individual patients, we encourage healthcare providers to seek out venues in which larger groups could be better informed about the benefits of a Covid-19 vaccine. In particular, local parent-teacher association meetings, town halls, or other virtual gatherings are opportunities to provide up-to-date and scientifically sound advice. These messages should highlight that vaccines benefit not only the individual but also family and friends, a message that preliminary evidence has been shown to be effective.

We must also invest in grassroots public outreach campaigns to communities in which vaccine hesitancy and skepticism are prevalent. On social media, false information spreads faster than true information. Coupled with public skepticism of government and public health officials, that poses a big challenge.

Heavy-handed, dry, and regulated government messaging won’t be effective in a world where public opinion is ruled by tweets and sound bites. The messaging must be designed specifically for social media and carried by nontraditional messengers, like local and national celebrities, religious leaders, and other influencers with broad reach. These messengers would serve as an important counterpoint to some of the unfounded conspiracy theories that have propagated online.

On top of these efforts, social media companies must partner with public health experts to curb the spread of misinformation, expose the falsehoods driving vaccine hesitancy, and stop groups that incite attacks or violence directed at public health officials. Partnering with expert reviewers has been leveraged by Wikipedia via trusted editors. Others have suggested crowdsourcing approaches to help ensure the veracity of online claims. Social media has given us wondrous new, lightning-fast communication tools, and these assets need to drive evidence-based messaging that advances public health and ultimately, helps save lives.

With the surge in Covid-19 cases, it’s clear that we need to rewrite the pandemic strategy and playbook. Federal and state governments should do more to partner with the private sector to help America achieve community immunity. We simply cannot get there without investing in targeted, grassroots outreach campaigns to encourage the uptake of a Covid-19 vaccine while at the same time moderating purveyors of disinformation.

Beating Covid-19 will require nontraditional partnerships and new communication styles that will resonate with the American public and, at the end of the day, win hearts and minds.

Bill Frist is a physician, former Republican Senate majority leader from Tennessee, chairman of the executive council of the health care investment firm Cressey & Company, senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and a co-chairman of the center’s work on health innovation. Richard Pan is a pediatrician representing Sacramento in the California State Senate and chairs the Senate Committee on Health. Max G. Bronstein is the founder of the Journal of Science Policy & Governance. He was previously senior director of health policy and corporate affairs at Audentes Therapeutics and chief advocacy and science policy officer at the EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases.

  • The frantic speed of pushing through a vaccine will leave unknown how long immunity lasts (in years, not just mere months), and if there are any detrimental long-term ramifications. People have the right to chose to wait and see what happens with the many vaccinated over time – while however running the risk of catching Covid. Due to the development speed, this will be a dilemma for many. I am highly vaccinated, bu will likely wait for Inovio’s DNA based vaccine, and its Cellectra cell-stimulating injectors. What I feel is lagging is R&D on Covid treatments, because until there is a good vaccine, people are still dying – and that is an embarassingly horrendously high number in the US.

    • Yes indeed your last observation says it all. Particularly ironic is that there is a model to strive for in plain view, namely the asymptomatic. HOW do we motivate “science” to take this research path? It is more of a statistical type research, develop a pertinent profile on asymptomatic individuals, do the same for the hospitalized, use linear regression analysis to determine the “different” factor(s) in the asymptomatic. WHAT is so difficult about this research pathway to understand???

  • A valid question to ask is does “Science” really need a massive number of companies and research units racing each other to bring a vaccine to market to obviously reap the economic incentive of repetitive vaccination for perhaps an individuals lifetime? What needs to be done is to study where the VIrus is Not sucessful, the asymptomatic, and find out WHY it is not successful and then develop a treatment and prevention based on the factor or factors that prevent the cell receptors from binding with the virus. Science is FAILING miserably in this pandemic.

    • Agreed. Rushing a vaccine and testing it on a few thousand people isn’t the same as making it mandatory for a nation. There will be people that shouldn’t have it but from everything I’ve seen that doesn’t matter.
      2 things this week that have made me distrust about this vaccine even more is the CDC holding hearings on making it mandatory, yet very few know this. Tough to comment during their 2 day window if it isn’t public knowledge.
      Second, if you look at The Great Reset that is being sold to the public you’ll find in there their full intentions of making this vaccine mandatory if the blue team takes over. How about it gets tested alot more then.
      Is this going to be another Bill Gates vaccine fiasco where thousands die because of a messed up vaccine?
      Something to consider and why do they need it to be mandatory? It’s only going to make more people back away from it.
      Lastly, this opinion piece believes that censorship is ok. That in itself says alot right there.

  • Science is the best method yet invented by mankind to separate facts from feel-good b******t. As mentioned, the rabid anti science rhetoric from the highest levels of government is exceedingly troubling. In my, admittedly anecdotal experience, many otherwise intelligent people stubbornly reject scientific realities when it conflicts with their political &/or religious biases.
    As Sam Harris rightly said, quote: “If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence. If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument would you invoke to prove they should value logic? -the discussion is over.”

  • When not wanting a rushed “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine makes you a conspiracy theorist.

  • And perhaps Dr. Frist might speak with his fellow GOP colleagues (including Congress members and local politicians) to stop the demagoguery and anti-science rhetoric?

  • While the author makes good points, there is a complicating factor regarding public acceptance of a vaccine for this particular illness, and that is the recent history of Emergency Use Authorization diagnostic products. These diagnostics, which of necessity have been released for public use with limited test data, have shown high levels of false negatives for viral (PCR) tests and high levels of false negatives and false positive for antibody tests. The public is learning about these problems, not only through published studies but also through anecdotal experience (for example, individuals being told they don’t have C19 when they have been exposed to a family member with a positive test and then develop classic symptoms). If we want to build confidence in a vaccine, we need to encourage FDA to require larger Ns and more rigorous testing – including revisiting diagnostic tests currently allowed on the market through EUAs. Reinforcing these legitimate concerns, FDA has published a guidance document specifically for approval of a C19 vaccine that has lower safeguards than the typical biologics approval (for example, certain validation is allowed after rather than before approval, and there may be no Pre-Approval Inspection of the manufacturing facility). Tarring intelligent people with informed concerns with the “anti-vac” brush is not going to get us anywhere. Addressing legitimate concerns will.

    • We have rights to make decisions regarding our health care and our bodies. This entire piece is a pro vaccine propaganda which is reprehensible. Suggesting that clergy, doctors, nurses help carry customers to the pharma trough. There is a cure for COVID-19. It’s called Hydroxychloroquine, ZPack and Zinc. We don’t need a vaccine. Treat your patients rather than killing them.

  • Wow! You mean science can’t solve everything?!?
    Who knew!?
    Only God… But then again when “science” is your goddess

    • Very well said, gentlemen. Thanks for starting the conversation about the important topic of vaccine uptake. The baton passing from scientists creating the vaccine to the community actually getting vaccinated is the most important relay race to quelling the impact of this pandemic.

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