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Combatting Vaccine Hesitancy One Step at a Time

March 19, 2021
by Matt Kristoffersen

Top Yale professors shared their strategies this week for combating vaccine hesitancy, myths and misinformation in a panel discussion moderated by Vanessa Kerry, a senior fellow at the Yale Jackson Center for Global Affairs.

The online webinar (March 15) featured perspectives on everything from global health to epidemiology to law, and empowered remote audience members to make sure the novel coronavirus no longer remains a worldwide threat through direct action. And because misinformation is a key obstacle in getting past the pandemic, the panelists said, this work could be more useful than ever.

That’s where their expertise comes in.

“We are in one of the most existential moments of human history,” said Kerry, M.D., who also leads a nonprofit called Seed Global Health. “We are very much interconnected.”

Indeed, despite a widespread feeling of hope at this time in the coronavirus crisis, there’s an essential part of the global COVID-19 response that remains to be done in developing nations . Much of this remains to be done in developing nations. Vaccines may come easily to wealthy parts of the world, for example, but they must also reach those less able to pay or arrange for them.

That also includes the United States, said YSPH Associate Professor Jason Schwartz, Ph.D., who serves as an advisor to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont for the COVID-19 response.

“We can’t lose sight of the equity considerations when we think of the vaccination efforts,” he said. “Despite lots of intention, lots of investment, lots of recognition and shared commitment, we need to do better with respect to who we reach.”

YSPH professors also brought up important challenges that the United States faces in the twilight months of the pandemic — and how to help.

Associate Professor Onyema Ogbuagu, M.B.B.Ch., who has led Yale’s trials for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, praised Connecticut’s diverse population for its help in testing candidates. But beyond these trials, community engagement is also necessary to make sure herd immunity is eventually achieved, he said. That means making media appearances, holding speaking events and enlisting community mainstays such as faith leaders to boost confidence in vaccine safety.

“We’ve realized effective vaccines only really have a real-world impact if people use them,” he said.

This problem is especially important in the United States. Professor Saad Omer, M.B.B.S., M.P.H., Ph.D., director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, said that research suggests people who emphasize liberty and purity are more likely to be skeptical of them, for example. Omer’s research also found that there’s a significant proportion of Americans — considered “fence-sitters” — who could be swayed toward taking the vaccine with the right messaging.

This could be partially solved by bipartisan endorsement of the vaccine, he said, suggesting former President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as potentially valuable allies in the fight against hesitancy.

The panel discussion also dedicated time to answering audience questions about transmissibility of the virus, the threat of variants and the mechanics of existing vaccines.

In this part of the event, YSPH Dean Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., gave insight on the research currently underway with vaccinating pregnant women — and dispelled the harmful myths of vaccine-caused infertility. Vermund also gave tips to the audience for becoming vaccine advocates in their own communities.

“I don’t think we need to get mad at people who don’t get the vaccine,” he said. “You have to listen to people’s concerns and give them more information.”

Other panelists, including Ogbuagu, Schwartz and Omer, provided valuable insights about addressing common misconceptions and challenges associated with the vaccines currently in use. But however hopeful the panelists were for the end of the pandemic, they all acknowledged that the road to a new normal is still fairly long.

“The work will still continue throughout the weeks and months to come to build the vaccine confidence that we need and to reach all the communities who could benefit from the vaccine,” said Schwartz. “Progress and hope to be sure, but still considerable work ahead.”

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on March 19, 2021