How Public Health Officials Can Increase Confidence in the COVID-19 Vaccine

Illustration doctors carrying vaccine syringe.

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Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a report stating the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
  • Public health officials also acknowledge much of the population is worried about the safety of the vaccine.
  • Vaccine behaviorists say transparency and uniform guidelines are the best ways increase public support of the vaccine.

Skepticism from the general public toward COVID-19 policies are making headlines all over the world, but health professionals are taking into account the public’s concerns. As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prepares to review Pfizer and Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines, public health officials are working to bolster confidence in the potential COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

Public confusion comes at a time when officials desperately need citizens to follow medical advice and follow COVID-19 safety precautions. But conflicting statements and policies from federal and local government officials have muddled the message. Experts worry misinformation and lack of clear direction will cause people to ignore medical advice and perhaps skip the vaccine entirely.

Now, as public hearings about the vaccine approval process approach, vaccine behaviorists are calling for more transparency and communication from public health officials.

Conflicting Reccomendations

By the summer of 2020, more than two dozen public health officials in 13 states resigned or were fired—some overworked, others targeted by elected officials, the populace, or both. 

As a result of current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protocols, the nation’s COVID-19 vaccine dispensation will vary from state to state—the agency can only issue recommendations, not rules, about who should be the first groups to get the vaccine.

Health officials say conflicting recommendations can confuse the public and result in many ignoring crucial advice that could save lives.

“As scientists, we provide recommendations based on evidence,” Rupali Limaye, PhD, a vaccine behaviorist and associate scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “In this pandemic, we are learning about the virus daily. As a result, recommendations have changed as we know more (think recommendations related to face masks). But some Americans see this change in messaging as not credible, even though changing recommendations based on what we are learning is how science works.”

What This Means For You

Vaccines are a reliable means of defending communities against infectious diseases. Understanding the facts around vaccinations can help you to communicate your vaccination concerns more effectively to family and healthcare professionals. It's important to continue to seek out information about the vaccine once distribution begins.

COVID-19 Vaccines: Stay up to date on which vaccines are available, who can get them, and how safe they are.

Overcoming Skepticism

Public health officials are used to their recommendations being met with skepticism. During the 2016 Ebola epidemic, the CDC was criticized for policies that some considered to be alarmist, while others considered to be insufficient. More generally, public health officials often receive pushback for their communication about weather phenomena, including hurricanes, floods, snow, and wildfires.

Many local public health officials have come forth to say they have never seen such an intense level of anger from the general public as they have during the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows about a quarter of U.S. adults aren’t sure if they want to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, while another quarter says they won’t.

“Vaccination attitudes tend to cluster—as we live in networks that tend to create echo chambers, which then does not allow for new information to be introduced to a network,” Limaye says. “It is important to think about how to talk to people that have opposing views and to become less polarized, as we all need to work together to protect our communities.”

According to a 2016 study, a major reason some parents choose not to vaccinate their children is a lack of information. Limaye believes people can get accurate information by identifying "credible sources of information—someone they trust, that understands the science, and can provide information in a digestible way.” 

As for gaining public trust, marketing and social psychology professor at Rutgers Business School—Newark, Jerome D. Williams, PhD, tells Verywell officials need to remember that some communities actually have valid reasons to distrust the government. “The African-American community has been taken advantage of in the past,” Williams says. “Remember the Tuskegee experiments? That wasn’t so long ago. It’s up to the government to provide full disclosure and assure its people that the vaccine was not rushed to market.”

Williams says officials need to be giving clear answers to the questions on people's minds, citing blood pressure as an example. “The African American community is predisposed to hypertension [high blood pressure],” he says. “Were there enough people in the clinical trials of the vaccine for scientists to know how the medicine will react to those with high blood pressure? Answering those questions will in turn result in less skepticism.”

In order to maintain the public's trust, Limaye offers four suggestions for public officials:

  • Be transparent. Let the public know what researchers know (or don't know) about the vaccine.
  • Set clear expectations. Give clear guidance about what normal side effects will look like.
  • Tailor messaging. Sub-groups of the public respond in different ways, don't settle for a one-message-fits-all approach.
  • Acknowledge that there are different attitudes about vaccines. Realize that not everyone has the same perceptions about vaccinations.

It's important to remember, LImaye says, "Vaccines don't save lives. Vaccinations do."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page. 

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Evans Jr. AC. For a COVID-19 vaccine to succeed, look to behavioral research. The Hill. Updated August, 17, 2020.

  3. Vestal C, Ollove M. Politicians Shunt Aside Public Health Officials. Pew. Updated June 18, 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014-2016 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa. Updated March 8, 2019.

  5. Ferrell C, Agarwal P. Flight Bans and the Ebola Crisis: Policy Recommendations for Future Global Health Epidemics. Harvard Public Health Review. Fall 2018;14.

  6. 1. Ebi K, Schmier J. A Stitch in Time: Improving Public Health Early Warning Systems for Extreme Weather EventsEpidemiol Rev. 2005;27(1):115-121. doi: 10.1093/epirev/mxi006

  7. Neergaard L, Fingerhut H. AP-NORC poll: Only half in US want shots as vaccine nears. Associated Press. Updated December 9, 2020.

  8. McKee C, Bohannon K. Exploring the reasons behind parental refusal of vaccinesJ Pediatr Pharmacol Ther. 2016;21(2):104-109. doi:10.5863%2F1551-6776-21.2.104

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.