Monday, Mar 6, 2023

Achieving Vaccine Uptake in The Age of Misinformation: A Community-Based Approach

Silvia TaylorExecutive Vice President, Chief Corporate Affairs and Advocacy Officer, Novavax

HLTH Foundation

Last November, I was proud to stand alongside the best and brightest in the healthcare industry at the HLTH Conference, discussing how to protect the health of people everywhere. I was fortunate to be part of a panel session with Lori Rose Benson, Executive Director and CEO of Hip Hop Public Health, in which we discussed challenges and opportunities with vaccine equity and uptake.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first swept the globe, the healthcare system collaborated on an unprecedented scale. Vaccines and boosters that resulted from these efforts have helped millions avoid serious illness, hospitalization and death — an enormous accomplishment. Still, many challenges with vaccine equity and uptake remain and threaten to limit future progress. The facts are stark: 

  • Black and Hispanic / Latino populations are less likely to get a COVID-19 booster than people in other racial and ethnic minority groups, yet are more likely to get sicker and die from COVID. 
  • According to a recent Pew Research Center survey of 10,588 U.S. adults, 57% say false and misleading information about the coronavirus and vaccines has significantly contributed to problems the nation has faced in dealing with the pandemic. 
  • In 2021 alone, over 85,000 new anti-COVID-19 vaccine Facebook accounts were developed and continue to proliferate across various platforms (e.g., YouTube, Twitter) resulting in close to 60 million anti-COVID-19 vaccine followers.

To address the challenges, we continue to face in preventive health, we must work with the whole person in mind, and better educate and engage where people are – at the community level. This means immersing ourselves in communities to understand their barriers to vaccine uptake and working alongside trusted community members to deliver meaningful solutions. Our work has just begun.

Championing Community-Tailored Education, Empowerment and Collaboration  

We live in an era where information is readily available at our fingertips; in a time where information is dispersed and consumed in diverse, less regulated forms, and communities extend beyond our immediate family or those who live near us. As an industry, we must understand the unique qualities of how all populations – rural, community, urban, minority, majority and across socioeconomic statuses – consume information, who they trust and how best to empower and educate them to make the right healthcare decision for themselves. 

Benson of, Hip Hop Public Health understands the power of community and embracing a culturally tailored approach in increasing vaccine uptake. She attributes the deep, emotive connections that come from weaving music and culture into meaningful messaging to create health behavior change. She says, “We need trusted messengers to deliver the right message via the right medium at the right moment.”

Relying on trusted voices is a common theme I hear in conversations with colleagues and experts. A recent study of healthcare leaders cited local community messaging endorsing vaccines as one of the most effective solutions in overcoming barriers to uptake. The trusted messengers in these spaces can become powerful conduits for dispelling misinformation— incorrect or misleading information and promoting the importance of vaccine access, uptake and overall health.

As Benson says, “We believe that the people closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution.”

Providing Trusted Medical Professionals with Information and Resources 

A second part of the solution is ensuring that medical professionals whom the public turns to most have the most up-to-date and accurate information to help inform individual care plans. 

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that “primary care providers (PCPs) play a critical role in ensuring vaccine acceptance, especially in resource-limited and vaccine-hesitant regions.” The study cites how higher numbers of PCPs per 100,000 people was associated with higher COVID-19 vaccination rates.

For those living in rural areas, PCP options may be few and far between. A large study found that a quarter of rural patients traveled more than 60 miles to get their care. This points to the importance of telehealth options and education of community pharmacists and urgent care physicians in helping ensure these patients have access to care and vaccine education.

Breaking Down Siloes, Building Partnerships to Improve Vaccine Uptake

Of course, communities alone cannot shoulder the burden of vaccine uptake. The more we can break down silos and embrace a “stronger together” approach, the more we can make progress. That includes convening influential groups within communities, backed by support from larger government and/or private partnerships, to continue identifying and creating effective solutions. Just a few examples of how this has already begun:

Recognizing that only one in eight African American men have been vaccinated against COVID, the Black Coalition Against COVID teamed with the White House to increase booster uptake within African American communities this past holiday season.

Military and veteran families have historically been vaccine-hesitant. Blue Star Families is committed to strengthening military families by connecting them with their neighbors. So to address vaccine hesitancy amongst military communities, Blue Star Families developed a toolkit for military families, creating productive conversations about vaccinations to keep loved ones and communities safe and informed.

The elderly are particularly at risk for serious illness and fatalities from COVID. The National Adult Vaccination Program, created by the Gerontological Society of America (GSA), has been working to increase adult vaccination uptake since 2010. GSA collaborates with multidisciplinary stakeholders to raise awareness of the immune function decline that predisposes the elderly to infections, and advocates for policies that increase vaccine access and uptake. Among other 2023 objectives, the GSA aims to identify sustainable solutions to address vaccine issues for older adults.

At Novavax, we know we are just one piece of the puzzle tackling the challenges of achieving broader, more equitable vaccine access and uptake to further promote healthy communities. Building upon the robust conversations we had onsite at HLTH 2022, I recently participated in an Expert Voices roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. hosted by Axios, where leaders across health care, policy and research organizations discussed the challenges of expanding vaccine access and uptake in the U.S. Conversations and ideas like this are essential to our mission at Novavax: “We never rest in our quest to protect the health of people everywhere.”

I look forward to Novavax’ continued engagement and support toward innovative solutions that can help address critical public health issues including vaccine access and uptake. 

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