Navigating Uncertainty: Why Open Communication About a COVID Vaccine is So Important.

Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the American public is well aware of the steps we must take to keep ourselves safe and healthy while we wait for society to “return to normal.”  Unfortunately, we likely won’t see anything resembling “normal” until there is at least a vaccine, if not a full-blown curative treatment. With the recent news about a number of vaccines entering phase 2 and 3 testing, it might seem as though relief could be right around the corner. That’s not quite the case. The Problem With “Returning to Normal” Last week, we heard that pharmaceutical giant Moderna had begun phase 3 of its COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial. Just before phase 3 began, the National Institutes of Health reported that Moderna’s first two phases of testing yielded ideal results, with study participants experiencing few side effects and the vaccine’s efficacy and safety requirements holding up well. This is incredibly promising news, but it doesn’t mean sweet relief from social distancing is imminent. The typical vaccine creation, testing, and marketing process can often take years. Granted, the process for a COVID-19 vaccination has been fast-tracked, but that still means from conception to distribution, a vaccine could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. That takes us to at least the spring of 2021, assuming that the phase 3 trial doesn’t experience any major failures or setbacks. Another potential hiccup lies in the likelihood of citizens actually getting the vaccine. According to a survey done by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago, almost 50% of Americans are hesitant to take a vaccine for COVID-19 or would flat out refuse.  How Organizations Have Been Discussing Vaccines Messages of solidarity and strength have long been considered the norm in times of hardship. Who isn’t heartened by images of Rosie the Riveter or the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” emblazoned on your favorite morning coffee mug? Positivity and reminders of American grit and resilience can foster a sense of camaraderie and reinforce the idea that “we’re all in this together.”  The majority of healthcare professionals are recommending a collaborative approach to communicating about the potential for a vaccine and the importance of being vaccinated when the time comes. In healthcare, numerous stakeholders are involved in the care of patients. They all need to be equipped with the same consistent, strong messaging.  Dr. Renata Schiavo, Ph.D., MA, and CEO of the nonprofit Health Equity Initiatives suggests beginning with direct patient caregivers, as they “have a key role in addressing vaccine hesitancy and limiting complacency to immunization.” She goes further to suggest that organizations that interface with clinicians, like professional associations and universities, train healthcare providers to have difficult conversations about vaccine hesitancy. Dr. Schiavo’s plan is rounded out by policy communication to legislators, responsible reporting on vaccines by journalists, and the use of social media to disseminate vetted and accurate vaccine information. Private companies have also outlined ideal communication strategies around the release of a vaccine. When businesses discuss a potential vaccine with employees, digital marketers McKinsey & Company urge clarity and transparency, focusing on “expectation setting and morale building, so employees know that their well-being is top of mind.” In McKinsey’s view, clear, honest, and open employer-employee conversations about the vaccine combined with demonstrable acts that ensure the safety and health of employees (i.e. allowing remote work) will foster understanding and calm amongst employees in an otherwise chaotic world. Wrap Up Ensuring that reliable, scientifically-proven information about the vaccine, its development and distribution timeline, and what to expect until it is released is being shared with your stakeholders and employees is integral to our sense of security until we get to a “new normal.” Follow the lead of major medical institutions and healthcare organizations, who are at the forefront of these issues. As the vaccine gets closer to being ready for the mass market, do not make any promises you are not prepared to keep, but maintain an optimistic tone and candor in your communications. 


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