In an extended crisis, the “middle hour” is when we become weary of the challenge and grow impatient with the sacrifice required to meet it. It is often the most precarious time. That’s where we are now with Covid-19.
The pandemic has spread serious illness far and wide, causing lonely deaths in hospitals and nursing homes. Students are learning remotely when they’d rather be in classrooms. Millions are out of work. Many fortunate others are working virtually but juggling the competing demands of family and work from the kitchen table.
Frontline workers and the hospitals or businesses they work for are stressed to the breaking point. Most of us yearn for the company of others and for a return to our pre-pandemic routine. Small wonder that some Americans are starting to let down their guards.
Medical and public health experts agree that we can defeat this virus. Many of the tools and resources are available today. Rapid and widespread testing and tracing, use of masks, frequent hand-washing, and social distancing followed consistently and with discipline must all be part of comprehensive national guidelines.
At some point, Covid-19 vaccines will be an important additional tool.
As former governors of Idaho and Massachusetts, two very different states, we know that governors are trusted most when they work together across party lines on coordinated implementation of public health guidelines. Americans want governors — all officials, actually — to work together on an orderly plan to distribute safe Covid-19 vaccines. That is the conclusion of a recent nationally representative survey by the Covid Collaborative and Hart Research.
The poll of 2,005 U.S. adults was conducted in September. It shows that most Americans accept that Covid-19 is more dangerous than the seasonal flu, that viral spread remains a serious problem, and that someone in their immediate family might contract it. Despite our middle-hour weariness, public health measures — testing, tracing, wearing a mask and social distancing — still rate as the top interventions to prevent the spread today. While 79% think it is important for the majority of Americans to get vaccinated, there are significant pockets of vaccine hesitancy that imperil this goal.
The survey reveals strong consensus about the efficacy and distribution of eventual Covid-19 vaccines that policymakers should bear in mind:
Americans want development and authorization of Covid-19 vaccines to be based on science. Seventy percent of those polled expressed confidence in the process at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that approves vaccines as safe and effective. As urgent as the need is for a vaccine, the top concern is that the approval process has adequate time to test for safety and effectiveness.
Americans want leaders to communicate clearly with the public about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Americans are hesitant to take new vaccines for a variety of reasons. They worry about side effects, and the majority would rather “wait and see” how a vaccine affects others before they take it themselves. They worry about cost, with larger percentages of those polled willing to get the vaccine if it is free. While being sensitive to different communities, cultures, and faiths, governors across the country will need to build confidence by engaging credible local messengers, including doctors, pharmacists, and people of similar age and backgrounds reporting positive experiences with vaccination.
Americans want fair and thoughtful distribution, not a lottery. The majority of people polled recognized that once a Covid-19 vaccine is approved, most of us will have to wait to get it, with 73% believing that a vaccine is at least three to six months away. Rejecting a lottery, Americans believe distribution plans should be driven by what will best prevent the spread of the virus.
Large majorities of those polled support priority vaccination for health care workers and nursing home residents and staff; people with serious medical conditions; teachers and childcare workers; and communities with higher rates of Covid-19. When asked about the four-phase priority distribution plan supported by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine with these same priorities, a robust 93% supported their state adopting it.
It is no surprise that Americans are willing to put others before themselves during this time of need.
As governors work through a host of logistical challenges, from creating sufficient distribution sites for Covid-19 vaccines to serve hard-to-reach areas to adequate storage of vaccines in low-temperature freezers, they should bear in mind the priorities Americans overwhelmingly share about who goes to the head of the line.
Americans have shown time and time again that we can surmount any challenge. The views of the people on how to overcome this one should drive plans of action. Plans that include science-based process, clear communication with trusted local messengers, transparent decision-making, and fair prioritization of distribution will reflect the will of the American people as we tackle the challenge of Covid-19.
We will get through this — together.
Dirk Kempthorne is a former Republican governor of Idaho. Deval Patrick is a former Democratic governor of Massachusetts. They are co-chairs of the COVID Collaborative, a national assembly of experts in health, education, and the economy.