An Information Battle Looms If A COVID-19 Vaccine Is Approved

Texas is fertile ground for health misinformation, and experts worry that could fuel vaccine hesitancy and prolong the pandemic.

By Caroline CovingtonJuly 6, 2020 1:18 pm,

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Aubrey Matson, a 19-year-old college student, doesn’t consider herself “anti-vaccine.” But the pandemic hasn’t made her 100% in favor of them, either. She’s concerned that a fast-tracked COVID-19 vaccine could be dangerous.

“I do think that it needs to be well-researched before it is put into practice,” she told Texas Standard back in March.

Matson is  “vaccine hesitant.” She knows that some people opposed to vaccines might take their skepticism too far and promote hard-line views against them. But she also believes that the majority of people – many of them parents – who question vaccine safety have good intentions.

“I don’t think any of them come from any malicious intent; I think it all comes out of the desire to protect their kids,” she said.

And in Texas, protecting kids from being forced to vaccinate has been a thorny subject. Texas is one of 15 states that allow parents to avoid vaccination requirements before enrolling their kids in school.

Maps courtesy Texas Department of State Health Services

While most Texans still get vaccinated, health experts like Dr. Seema Yasmin worry that when a COVID-19 vaccine is finally ready, some will refuse to take it.

“You end up with these deep pockets, these areas where many people don’t get vaccinated. … Even when overall vaccination rates look good, that doesn’t mean people are protected on a community level,” she said.

Yasmin is an epidemiologist, journalist and now a health communication researcher at Stanford University. She’s seen firsthand the good vaccines can do. In 2014, she reported on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

And she said a vaccine for COVID-19 will be the best bet for slowing the pandemic.

“It’s hard without a vaccine because you’re relying on containment measures such as physical distancing … and, of course, society doesn’t function that way. … A vaccine, or maybe multiple vaccines, is our likeliest way out of this crisis.”

But as medical researchers work furiously on a vaccine, the public health community is already anticipating a major hurdle after a COVID-19 vaccine is approved: how to convince skeptics to get vaccinated.

A resistance movement in Texas was born five years ago after state lawmakers tried to limit existing exemptions for kids whose parents did not want them vaccinated. And people involved in that movement are already informing the state, through the media, that they want a choice when it comes to a future COVID-19 vaccine.

Jackie Schlegel is executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice. In May, she appeared on the holistic-health show, One Life Radio to talk about her concerns that some of her group’s work to keep vaccine exemptions in Texas could be undone because of the pandemic.

“I’m not confident that we are tackling this appropriately. I want full assurance that any vaccine that comes to market has been thoroughly tested and it’s not going to be mandated,” she told host Bernadette Fiaschetti.

Schlegel also made clear what her group wants for Texans:

“Ultimately, everybody in this state needs a choice. And not just a choice to receive the vaccine or not, but reject the vaccine without consequence.”

Schlegel declined to be interviewed by Texas Standard. But she emailed that her group’s “mission of protecting and advancing informed consent, medical privacy, and vaccine choice for all Texans will not waver.”

Choice is one thing. But public health experts like Stanford’s Yasmin want people to make choices about a COVID-19 vaccine after receiving accurate information about it. So Yasmin and others are focused now on how to combat the flood of misinformation that flows online.

“My frustration has been that disease doesn’t spread alone; it spreads in tandem with information contagion, and so we need to counter that as well,” Yasmin said.

Already, misinformation about a COVID-19 vaccine is spreading widely on social media. Project VCTR, a nonprofit that tracks that vaccine misinformation, found that on June 23 alone, there were nearly 8,000 messages about vaccine opposition in the United States. Some of those messages pushed conspiracies like one about billionaire Bill Gates using vaccines to implant tracking microchips. Those few thousand messages can be shared and seen millions of times over, amplifying the false information.

One of the most popular, persistent and false messages about vaccines is the one tying them to autism. That’s a theory that has been repeatedly discredited by scientists and doctors.

Yasmin says vaccine misinformation works because it often taps into people’s emotions.

“They tell stories that are compelling and shocking and believable.”

And research being done now shows Yasmin and public health experts have work to do. A recent survey by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago found that only half of the more than 1,000 people surveyed said they’d get a COVID vaccine when it becomes available.

Johns Hopkins University researcher Meghan Moran wanted to find out more about this mistrust for vaccines, so she recently analyzed over 1,000 anti-vaccine websites.

“We saw a lot of rhetoric around the language of choice, freedom and independence. … There were statements about vaccines being almost oppositional to the American way of life,” she said.

Moran said we need savvier health communication to get people onboard when it comes to vaccines because those who are hesitant have complicated feelings about them.

“We’re not just asking someone to change a belief; we’re asking them to change a much larger ideological system, or a sense of identity or connection to a community,” Moran said.

Mike Mackert agreed that identity is key when it comes to good public health communication. He’s the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Health Communication. He says health officials might have more success if they craft more tailored messages.

“Big broad messages aimed at everyone is the worst you can do. … As soon as you can target information to a smaller subgroup, you’re generally going to do better,” he said.

But good health communication isn’t always enough. Mackert said sometimes, new laws and regulations are needed to fix big public health problems.

“It’s one of the reasons we think a lot about … where is the answer a health communication solution, and where is it policy?”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said that he expects a vaccine to be “the end” to the COVID-19 pandemic. But he hasn’t said anything about mandating a vaccine.

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