With new May 1 vaccine push, communication key to pushing past resistance

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

While the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has offered hope, it also has been characterized by confusion. Many people have been mystified by the phased eligibility process and forced to scramble for vaccination appointments once it’s their turn. A clearly defined return to normalcy has remained out of sight.

Now, it may be on the horizon. When President Joe Biden announced last week that all American adults would become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, the message offered a tone of certainty. But obstacles remain, particularly as normalcy hinges on millions of Americans choosing to get vaccinated.

Left to right: Laura Dudley, assistant clinical professor, and director of Applied Behavior Analysis Programs, Neil Maniar, Director of Northeastern University’s Master of Public Health in Urban Health Program, Susan Mello, an assistant professor of Communication Studies, and Wendy Parmet, director of the Northeastern University Program on Health Policy & Law. Photos by Northeastern University

“This is uncharted territory,” says Neil Maniar, director of Northeastern University’s Master of Public Health Program in Urban Health. “There’s hopefully a light at the end of the tunnel, and I think there is, but it still requires all of us to be vigilant, it requires all of us to look out for one another, and it requires all of us to do our part.”

The goal of this new timeline is to be able to allow Americans to gather for a relatively normal July 4 holiday, the Biden administration said. Americans could celebrate in small groups if enough people are vaccinated by then. The U.S. currently is administering more than 2.3 million vaccines each day. Of the adult population, 14.5 percent have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On paper, the timeline outlined by the president seems possible – if a bit tight, Maniar says. “It’s one thing to say we’re going to open up eligibility to everyone,” he says, but it’s another to make sure that there is a system in place that enables everyone to get a shot. 

Even if vaccines are truly available to everyone, a return to normality isn’t guaranteed. For herd immunity, experts have estimated that some 70 to 80 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated. And, according to polls, about 25 percent of Americans aren’t planning on getting vaccinated. 

As such, President Biden’s announcement was as much a call to action as it was a plan. He spoke using the collective first person, saying, “If we do our part, if we do this together, by July the 4th there’s a good chance you, your families, and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day.”

That language may set an important tone, says Susan Mello, an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern. For much of the pandemic, the public-health messaging has focused on preventing serious illness, or death. But such fear-focused messaging can be paralyzing and we can become numb to the numbers, Mello says.

Instead of focusing on what could be lost (open businesses, health, lives), the president’s address reframed the call to action in terms of what could be gained: independence from pandemic restrictions and a return to normal life.

“It gives people hope in a time when we’ve been living in this void of, ‘What day is it, is this ever going to end.’ It helps us cope with some of the disenfranchisement that we may have been feeling about, ‘What can I possibly do,’ and nihilism of, ‘This is just never going to end,’” Mello says. Furthermore, the goal of some normalcy by July 4 appeals to people’s sense of American independence, she says.

The timeline doesn’t hold only sentimental significance, however. It also could strike a balance between urgency and pragmatism, says Wendy Parmet, director of Northeastern’s Program on Health Policy & Law. While it takes time to vaccinate everyone in the United States, if it happens too slowly, interest could wane.

“As fear of the disease declines, willingness to be vaccinated decreases,” she explains. With some of the more at-risk population vaccinated, among the younger, healthier adults, there may emerge a sense of, “Why bother?”

There’s also a more compelling health reason to vaccinate the population quickly: variants. The virus mutates most when it can run rampant in a community. The longer the COVID-19 virus has a large pool of people to infect, says Maniar, the more likely variants will emerge that may be resistant to the vaccine.

Still, perhaps a quarter of U.S. adults remain hesitant about the vaccine. Some simply don’t believe that they’re at risk of getting seriously sick, while others’ hesitancy stems from underlying mistrust, explains Laura Dudley, assistant clinical professor and director of Applied Behavior Analysis Programs in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern. 

Some of the mistrust is specific to the COVID-19 vaccines, she says. There has been a lot of misinformation or confusing information about the safety, side effects, and effectiveness of the vaccines out there. The vaccine also has been politicized, and more Republicans than Democrats polled have said they will not get the vaccine.

The reluctance to vaccinate also may indicate a general mistrust of the medical and pharmaceutical industries, says Dudley. “We know, for example, that there has been a history of racism within the medical system, with great harm being committed in the name of science and the advancement of medicine,” she says.

“That deep-seated mistrust that might be at play for some people is a bigger challenge and a bigger problem, and one that might not be solved by July 4.”

While the polls suggest that the number of people planning to get the vaccine may be just barely enough to reach herd immunity, reality may be different. 

“When it’s no longer theoretical or somewhere in the distant future, and you’re now provided with this choice: ‘Am I going to get the vaccine or not?’,” Dudley says, “It’s hard to know how people are going to respond to that. But I do think that having been told that there’s a possibility that we could have summer celebrations could be a real incentive to people.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.