It’s time to build trust as COVID-19 vaccines roll out!

Dec 9, 2020, 3:38 PM

A recent poll finds that only 14% of African Americans and 24% of Hispanics trust that a COVID-19 vaccination will be safe and effective. The remainder, who constitute more than 20% of the U.S. population, harbor uncertainty or distrust about the shots.

Many other Americans share the same doubts, a dangerous situation as the new vaccines represent our clearest path out of the deadly pandemic.

Anti-vaccination activists also have tried to spread misinformation through social media.

To counter these misgivings, the Ad Council has partnered with an organization of universities, philanthropies and government agencies known as the COVID Collaborative to raise $50 million for a public education campaign — one of the largest on record — aimed at overcoming fears and doubts about COVID-19 vaccination.

Distrust of the vaccines also must be addressed by their makers and the Food and Drug Administration, which needs to be completely transparent with the data from the drug trials. That way, medical professionals can reassure themselves that no corners were cut during the rapid development process, and they can learn exactly what the expected efficacy and side effects will be for each vaccine.

To stop the spread of COVID-19 by vaccination, epidemiologists say a vaccine should be taken by 80% of the population. With some polls indicating that more than half of the population is doubtful that a vaccine will be safe and effective, that goal is going to be out of reach unless the Ad Council and related efforts are successful in changing minds.

That will not be easy. There is a natural tendency in the black community, with good historical reasons, to distrust authority. As University of London researcher Rob Brotherton, author of “Suspicious Minds,” has said: “Given that most conspiracy theories allege that authorities and institutions like the government or the medical establishment are not to be trusted, it is entirely understandable that such theories resonate among communities with long histories of being marginalized and mistreated by those very institutions.”

It will not be enough to have a few prominent African Americans, such as professional athletes, do public service ads. There also must be outreach to trusted figures in each black community, such as ministers and elected officials. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., would be a natural leader of any such effort, given his prominence and credibility. The organizers of the planned campaign, particularly in South Carolina, should seek his advice.

The effort to build confidence in the vaccines got a boost last week when former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton said they would take a vaccine when it becomes available and are willing to be filmed doing it. Their example could help allay some fears.

The most recent poll that revealed the scope of distrust or uncertainty among black and Hispanic Americans was conducted by Langer Research for the COVID Collaborative, the NAACP and UnidosUS, a leading Hispanic advocacy group. Similar Pew Research Center polls also found blacks far more wary of a vaccine, but in an optimistic sign, people of all races are growing more comfortable with the idea than they were two months ago.

“It’s not having a vaccine that saves lives, it’s actually people getting vaccinated,” Harvard School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams told The Washington Post.

Professor Howard Koh of the Harvard School added that doctors need to know more about the development process for the vaccines, which work differently than traditional vaccines. “A doctor who can’t commit to a vaccine personally may find it difficult, if not impossible, to advise their patients to do so,” Dr. Koh told the Post. It’s crucial, he said, for companies developing vaccines to publish full results from clinical trials as soon as possible to persuade physicians that the vaccine is safe.

Those words ring particularly true after drugmaker AstraZeneca recently acknowledged a mistake in the vaccine dosage received by some of its study participants.

Building trust in the safety and efficacy of the new vaccines will be critical to the success of any COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

A Guest Editorial