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Communicating about Vaccines

On the COVID-19 front, lately it’s been a battle between good news and bad news.

Bad news: Virus spread is worse than ever, with several variant strains of the virus going around that are especially contagious. More than 400,000 people have died in the U.S. so far; last week, the CDC predicted there could be more than 500,000 deaths by mid-February.

Good news: Vaccines are here, they’re effective and they’re starting to be distributed.

Bad news: Some people are hesitant about taking them because of misinformation they’ve heard about vaccine distribution, safety and effectiveness.

Good news: As the outreach arm of the land-grant education system, Extension is in a position to educate the public about vaccines.

UF/IFAS Extension is a trusted source of research-based information, and just as we’ve been communicating actions to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, we can help the public get the science-based facts about vaccination.

Our primary message in Extension is that prevention is still the most important part of combating COVID-19. Masks, sanitization and social distancing will continue to be a must for the foreseeable future. To that end, our Extension response plan, including UF’s Events and Gathering Policy and the travel and events portal, remain in effect.

Educating the Public about Vaccines

With respect to the vaccines, it’s important to remember that our primary role is to be educators, not advocates. And by educators, I mean that we should be directing and encouraging our clientele to learn as much as they can about vaccines from credible sources, just as we ourselves should be doing. We should not be dispensing medical advice or telling people whether they should or should not take the vaccine when it becomes available, but instead steer them to science-based information provided by medical professionals.

When the topic of the COVID vaccine arises, it’s important to expect that there may be some doubt, skepticism and push-back. Many people, including those in marginalized groups within your community, may have lower confidence in the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Understanding their feelings is important, and pointing to science-based information will help to build layers of confidence. When discussing vaccines,  avoid using loaded terms like “conspiracy theories,” “anti-vaxxers” and references to a “rushed” vaccine approval process. Don’t ignore the anti-vaccine messages and misinformation, but at the same time, you shouldn’t repeat them as possibilities or truth.

UF’s Center for Public Interest Communications offers these guidelines for communicating about vaccines:

  • Consider people’s identities, worldviews, and moral values, all of which affect the information they’re willing to accept.
  • Act quickly to get the message out, since people are most likely to trust and stick to the version of information they hear first.
  • Use trusted messengers such as scientists and doctors, or trusted leaders withing a community.
  • Make sure messages are concrete, consistent, built around a narrative, and provide value.
  • Make the vaccine-trials process more transparent and tell stories of people who have participated.
  • Appeal to positive emotions like pride and parental love rather than shame, fear, and guilt.
  • Recognize that communities have different relationships with vaccinations, and design communications strategies with that in mind.
  • Recognize that peoples’ perceptions about the choices made by individuals like them will affect whether they decide to take a vaccine.

Vaccine Resources and Learning Opportunities

UF Health has up-to-date information that informs people about the science behind the vaccines and their safety. These resources have been added to the COVID-19 Updates bar on the Extension Administration website. UF Health will also be sharing videos and flyers about vaccine science, many of them will be translated into Spanish and Haitian Creole specifically for Extension, so be on the lookout for these materials.

Dr. Michael Lauzardo leads the Screen, Test & Protect team at UF Health and has been doing a tremendous job in answering frequently asked questions about the vaccines. Dr. Lauzardo was a guest on our recent Extension Connections webinar; his Q&A session with us begins at about the 32-minute mark.

We have two more town halls featuring Dr. Lauzardo scheduled:

  • Feb 9, 1-2 PM in English
  • Feb 17, 1-2 PM in Spanish

These are designed for Extension, commodity groups, growers, farm supervisors, etc. The Spanish-language session will be for the same audience, but we will add general public to the mix. Watch for registration opportunities coming soon.

UF Health’s Newsroom is another good source of up-to-the-minute information that you can share with stakeholders. Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Nicole Iovine debunks common myths and answers questions about COVID-19 vaccines.

The Southeastern Coastal Center for Agricultural Health and Safety has an excellent collection of training materials from state and federal sources, including vaccination plans, media toolkits and FAQs. A series of virtual town hall events began on January 26 to provide the latest updates about COVID-19 transmission and vaccines. A recording of the 1/26 town hall is available here.

On January 28, Dr. Michael Gutter will be joining a national conversation about COVID-19, current vaccines, and the impact of the pandemic on rural and urban communities as part of the Our Community, Our Health (OCOH) town hall series. This will be presented free and open to the public via Livestream, and you can register here.

Finally, the Institute for Public Relations provides a detailed communicators’ guide that can help you talk not only about vaccines, but other issues related to health and wellness.

Educating people about vaccines is really a continuation of our education about limiting the spread of COVID-19—educate, don’t advocate, and point people to trusted sources of information. By now, you’re probably tired of talking with clients about masks and social distancing; urging people to get the facts about vaccines from credible sources might get old, too. However, it’s encouraging that we are finally seeing the light at the end of a very long tunnel. To borrow from Winston Churchill, this isn’t the end, or even the beginning of the end, but it may, perhaps be the end of the beginning.