Although there is not yet a vaccine available to protect people from COVID-19, misinformation and disinformation about a potential vaccine are already being widely circulated. Misinformation and disinformation are different. Misinformation is unintentionally inaccurate information, but disinformation is false information that is deliberately spread. Misinformation is more easily corrected by providing accurate information, but disinformation is very difficult to combat. Disinformation about COVID-19 vaccine is being used to exacerbate political tensions and create doubts among the public.
Polls indicate that only about 50% of Americans plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine when available. That number is just too low. If we want to end this epidemic and “go back to normal,” we need more widespread immunity. Without enough people protected, we cannot create herd immunity. If the epidemic continues, we will create even more stress on our healthcare system. Clinicians will be splitting time between treating patients with COVID-19 and having long conversations with patients to correct vaccine disinformation.
Here are three things we can do right now to address this problem:
- Disseminate accurate, credible, and understandable information. The CDC’s website is full of information about vaccine development, safety, and efficacy overall. COVID-19 vaccines are following the same steps as other vaccines to make sure they are safe and effective. Share information with the public at both the local and national levels through partners (including other federal partners beyond CDC, like FDA, CMS, NIH, FEMA, and DHA), social media channels, press, and other trusted sources. That way, audiences are hearing the same messages from multiple sources and in different ways. Health care professionals also need to be trained how to talk about the vaccine. They are very trusted sources of health information.
- Communicate regularly about what we know, and more importantly, what we don’t know. Right now, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the availability and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. If scientists don’t acknowledge that uncertainty, people will fill in those holes with information they can find easily – and unfortunately, that is often misinformation. Public health professionals need to closely monitor messages circulating and public understanding of the topic to understand what misinformation may need to be corrected. Unfortunately, this is often like playing whack a mole, and new myths regularly pop up.
- Share compelling information that resonates with those who may have doubts. It can’t be all about the science. We have to make this personal and use emotions. We need to understand our audiences (i.e., formative research) and speak to them in a way that aligns with their values and priorities. For some, getting back to a normal life is most important but for others, it is knowing that their family members with underlying medical conditions will be protected. Communication has to be tailored and cannot be one size fits all.
Once available, COVID-19 vaccines will be the best tools we have to fight this epidemic but will require widespread uptake. The public health community and partners need to work together to build vaccine confidence. Now is the time to educate and empower people to make an informed decision about COVID-19 vaccination. Ensuring the public understands the importance and value of vaccines will serve us well now and for many years to come – because just as quickly as we saw this pandemic emerge, the next one could be around the corner.