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President-elect Joe Biden's team is feverishly working to get a messaging plan in place to sell a skeptical public on the first FDA-backed coronavirus vaccine, believing the Trump administration has set the effort back significantly.
Biden implied on Friday that he’s not going to wait until he takes office to start counteracting Trump’s mixed messaging on the vaccine, which includes downplaying the public health threat of the coronavirus while hailing the unprecedented speed at which a shot was developed.
"We’re in the teeth of the crisis right now," the president-elect said while introducing a group of Cabinet nominees and administration picks. "This nation needs presidential leadership right now. … You know, we can wish this away, but we have to face it head on.”
With the first shots being prepared for delivery to states next week, Biden’s team is already laying the groundwork for a public education campaign by placing scientists in top posts — and promising to defer to them — and putting an intensive focus on getting the vaccine to underserved populations, according to public health experts who’ve spoken with the transition.
Biden’s messaging now could have an impact on how quickly the U.S. gets back to normal. Health experts think if 75 to 80 percent of Americans get the shots, the nation can potentially achieve herd immunity by next fall and end the pandemic by the close of next year. Lower participation would mean it would take much longer to effectively stop new infections.
“It’s not enough to just get the vaccine out into the community, but getting the community to accept the vaccine," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at University of Minnesota and a member of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, who characterizes the dilemma as "the last-inch challenge."
The Biden team is confronting steep challenges: A monthslong political fight over public health measures like mask wearing has left many crisis-fatigued Americans wary of mandates and new cures and distrustful of government. And tight budgets have left states unable to mount robust awareness campaigns of their own.
Many believe interest in the shots will build as more essential workers, nursing home residents and other priority recipients get them.
But the coronavirus could keep spreading without robust and consistent public messaging.
According to a transition official, the Biden team is "planning on how to communicate in the most creative, transparent and effective ways to reach Americans where they are” with more details available in “the coming weeks.”
The president-elect has found poll results on Americans’ willingness to be vaccinated “staggeringly low.” Recent surveys show less than half of Americans saying they plan to get the shots. Those numbers are significantly lower for Black and Hispanic Americans, according to the recent AP-NORC poll.
To counter skepticism, Biden is giving leading roles to public health figures like infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, whom he named chief medical adviser on Covid-19 and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale expert on health disparities who was named his Covid-19 Equity Task Force chair, with a focus on ensuring minority communities have access to the vaccine.
Fearing the Trump administration left too much of the pandemic response to the states, Biden has also talked with groups central to distributing the vaccine, such as the Association of Immunization Managers, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the groups confirmed to POLITICO.
Meanwhile, groups like the Covid Collaborative and the Ad Council are gearing up to augment government efforts with a $50 million ad campaign in the beginning of next year, including billboards, TV and digital advertisements. The Ad Council has been in touch with the Trump Centers for Disease Control, and Department of Health and Human Services, according to an Ad Council spokesperson.
Public health experts say coordinated messaging on a vaccine should have begun months ago, leaving the incoming administration little time to allay public fears and tamp down growing anti-vaccine sentiment.
“There should be things out in the media now,” said Hemi Tewarson, a visiting senior policy fellow at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy. “They are definitely going to have to play catch up.”
A White House spokesman defended the administration's messaging. "President Trump hosted a three-hour-long, live-streamed, nationally-televised summit regarding the process for developing, reviewing, approving and distributing the vaccine, which he referred to as a 'miracle,' because of its safety and effectiveness. Any mixed messages or attacks from the president’s opponents for political purposes are shameful," the spokesman said in a statement.
The challenges ahead are compounded by early reports of a few adverse reactions in Britain.
Another factor driving vaccine hesitancy is the fear that corners are being cut in the review process to please President Donald Trump — a concern amplified Friday when the White House warned FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn that he could be ousted if the agency didn't quickly authorize the Pfizer vaccine.
The Trump administration still plans to launch a two-year, $250 million public health education, according to an HHS spokesperson, part of which will focus on vaccine acceptance with print, radio and social media ads that include specific messaging for groups and areas of the country that have been hardest hit by the virus. The campaign is aimed at people who are hesitant but not outright resistant to vaccines and is due to begin next week after a troubled planning phase shaped by political considerations.
The administration's Operation Warp Speed was set up to bring a vaccine to market without actually promoting it. That created a vacuum that has been filled by conspiracy theorists and Russian disinformation, said Peter Hotez, a virologist and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. He said the pro-vaccine forces have so far been outgunned and it will take more than a few public service announcements from the Trump or Biden camps to change the narrative.
“Now we’ve got to do damage control,” he said, adding that he’d like to see Biden task the Commerce, Homeland Security and State departments with addressing disinformation.
Those efforts could be combined with personal appeals from figures in public health and other fields. Vin Gupta, a critical care doctor and pulmonologist who advised the Biden campaign, said he plans to get inoculated on national television.
“Making sure that you have communicators that are credible, authentic, [is] absolutely vital, and I think you’re going to need different types of communicators going to different segments of society,” he said.