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5 strategies to counter politicized COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

Texas A&M researcher, Timothy H. Callaghan, PhD, and colleagues suggest five short-term steps to prioritize health over politics

The push to vaccinate Americans during the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has been met with strong resistance in some areas of the country. From religious beliefs to fear of long-term side-effects from the vaccine, Americans have voiced a variety of reasons for their decisions not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

One of the largest factors in the United States has been, and continues to be, the role of politics and what side of the political spectrum individuals land on. According to an April New York Times article, the willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and actual vaccination rates were lower, on average, in counties where a majority of residents voted to re-elect former President Donald J. Trump in 2020.

The question then becomes, how do we navigate the political divide in an effort to encourage more conservatives to vaccinate, allowing the United States to move toward herd immunity and a possible end to the COVID-19 pandemic? Additionally, we must work to prevent political divides on COVID-19 from possibly becoming ingrained, leading to greater resistance to all vaccination and outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable diseases, like measles and mumps.

In an article published recently in The Lancet, Timothy H. Callaghan, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, and his colleagues suggest five short-term steps that can be taken to prioritize health over politics:

  • Diversify messengers
  • Draw on broad expertise
  • Invest in research
  • Counter purveyors of misinformation
  • Stop the misinformation

Callaghan and his colleagues point out that public officials need to recognize that in their efforts to promote the COVID-19 vaccine, the messenger is as important as the message.

“We need to simultaneously use an array of trusted speakers and encourage Republican leaders to promote pro-vaccine messages,” Callaghan said.

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is not just a public health problem and because of this, the researchers suggest that public officials should engage experts from the social, behavioral and communication sciences to create comprehensive strategies to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Additionally, the researchers point out that because the politicization of vaccines has become such a major hurdle, more social and behavioral research is needed that specifically develops strategies to overcome politicized vaccine hesitancy.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine has been misinformation. The authors point out that this needs to be addressed by policy makers and professional organizations. Callaghan and colleagues advocate examining available legal, regulatory and private sector options to reduce the impact of the well-financed organizations that are spreading misinformation.

The authors also suggest that conservative media outlets should stop amplifying falsehoods about the vaccine and advertisers should pull funding from programs and websites promoting misinformation. Social media platforms should also increase and enhance their efforts to track, disclose and stop the spread of misinformation.

“By addressing these five recommendations, we can help to reduce the role that politics is playing in COVID-19 vaccination decisions and be better prepared to prevent politicization of other health issues in the future,” Callaghan noted.

Additional authors include: Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University; Richard M. Carpiano, PhD, MPH, professor of public policy, University of California, Riverside; Sema K. Sgaier, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of global health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Noel T. Brewer, PhD, Gillings Distinguished Professor in Public Health, University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health; Alison P. Galvani, PhD, Burnett and Stender Families Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases, Yale School of Public Health; Rekha Lakshmanan, MHA, director of advocacy and policy, The Immunization Partnership; SarahAnn McFadden, Yale School of Medicine; Dorit Reiss, PhD, professor of law, James Edgar Hervey ’50 Chair of Litigation, UC Hastings Law; Daniel A. Salmon, PhD, professor, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University; and Peter J. Hotez, MD, PhD, dean, National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine.

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