By Masoumeh Zafarmand
Some Calgarians are hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine. They are concerned because they think the vaccine development was rushed, and so its safety and efficacy cannot be trusted. There are also myths such as the vaccine enters your cells and changes your DNA or the vaccine itself can give you COVID.
I talked with Andrea Collins, APR, who has been in the communications business for over 40 years including 15 years in health communication, about the role of communicators in addressing vaccine hesitancy.
Andrea believes that people need up-to-date information. “People are scared and depressed; they are having difficult times. Having access to timely and accurate information from reliable sources is reassuring and helps them make informed decisions.” She thinks that health officials are the best people to educate and inform people in regard to vaccination. “Most of us have our biggest trust in health officials, rather than government,” she says. “For instance, Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s Provincial Health Officer, or Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, are seen as reliable sources of information as what they say is based on solid science, facts and research.”
She continues that people need true, honest information. “It is important that the truth is not hidden from the public and that there is no speculation like Donald Trump’s famous ‘maybe we should drink sanitizers’ remark. Contrast that approach with Dr. Hinshaw who is positive, calm and never politicalizes things or says something that she doesn’t know for sure.”
For over a year, the pandemic has been the top story in the news media almost every day, but sometimes the media focus on negative news that only fuels people’s fears and speculations. “Communicators can play a big role in encouraging media to give only accurate, necessary information and include some news that is positive.”
Though it was difficult for any government of health service to give out substantiated information in the early days of the pandemic, they should be applauded for giving almost daily news conferences for over a year. They have also kept their websites updated. The same approach should be done in regard to vaccine communications. Consistent messages about the types of vaccines, their availability and safety as well as distribution timelines and procedures would lessen the hesitancy about receiving the vaccine. Andrea says, “Perhaps they should add text like many pharmacies are doing or even social media, which is so dominant in people’s lives.” She adds that, “There are many social influencers that write blogs on health and wellness that could share information and encourage dialogue. They also need to translate information into other languages so they can reach newcomers to Canada. Another means of alternative communications would be to partner with trusted messengers such as religious leaders, community organizations and other kinds of leaders that people trust, to get in getting their vaccine messages out.”
Doctors and scientists say the main way to slow or stop the pandemic is for most of the population to be vaccinated. However, it cannot be made mandatory in a democratic country like Canada, so good communications is the main tool we have. By demonstrating the effectiveness of the vaccines with stats and facts, telling people about the lack of side effects and dispelling the myths, enough people will be convinced that vaccines may be the only way we can return to normal life.