In the first of a contemplated series of Covid-19 vaccine confidence reports, a leading digital health communications firm released findings indicating that a substantial majority of Americans are inclined to take the vaccine when it becomes available, and have a high degree of confidence that it is safe and will protect them from infection.
The W2O Group found that 80% of American social media, internet search and other posts suggest a willingness to be vaccinated, with only 20% of such postings suggesting an unwillingness to do so. These signals are largely consistent regardless of geography. Further, online posts suggest that 86% of Americans believe the vaccines are safe, and 87% believe that the vaccines eventually will produce broad immunity. You can find the W2O report here. [In full disclosure, I am an advisor to W2O.]
These figures are based upon the firm’s application of sophisticated digital analytics, including internet search, social media and other data, and reflect a higher level of comfort with the vaccine than has been shown using traditional survey methods. For example, in December of last year the Pew Research Center found that only about 60% of respondents would likely choose to be vaccinated. In contrast, W2O historically has found that perspective gleaned from social media analytics is a reliable leading indicator that ultimately will prove to be more accurate than static polling numbers.
W2O’s chief data officer, Seth Duncan, said that his firm has a long history of identifying relevant healthcare data points using machine learning algorithms, and that “deep dive” data analytics can produce a more accurate picture than traditional polling. “Combination studies that combine polling data with internet search data give you a more accurate result [of what people think]. You need to identify and evaluate social digital signals, especially when you are considering issues that are contentious or may have socially desirable or undesirable responses.”
As for those who are among the 9% of Americans that are concerned with vaccine safety, there is a definite tilt that appears to be linked to one’s politics. W2O found that 24% of those on the right appear to believe that vaccines may be unsafe, while only 6% on the left are concerned about safety. Of those who say they are unlikely to vaccinate, 51% say they value “freedom of choice.”
Although liberals and conservatives alike celebrated the extraordinary success of the rapid vaccine development, it was for decidedly different reasons: the left was impressed with the underlying science and the right by the impact of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. “We wanted to take on this project because polling data doesn’t always tell the story behind the numbers, as to why people think as they do,” said Duncan. “But we are encouraged here by the fact that vaccine regulatory approval was celebrated by virtually all Americans.”
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This is largely welcome news. As we reach the one-year anniversary of the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic, it is impossible to overstate the import of the public’s comfort and confidence in the safety and efficacy of the new vaccines. For if we are to prevail in our fight against this health and economic crisis and return to some semblance of normalcy, we will do so on the back of the largest immunization campaign in human history. Needless to say, the virus is not going to “magically” disappear (I seem to have forgotten, who was it who said that . . . ?). And reaching herd immunity without vaccines carries with it the prospect of continuing death and disability that it is simply too horrible to conjure, let alone accept.
That leaves us with vaccines, and thank God we have two (going on three . . . ) now approved for use. But if Americans don’t believe that they will work to prevent infection from the Covid-19 virus or if they believe that they might suffer from a severe allergic or other adverse reaction, then they will not line up for the vaccine and the pandemic will continue to rage. Despite the encouraging numbers announced by W2O, the amount of misleading or inaccurate information on social media continues apace, and efforts by Facebook and others may be insufficient to neutralize these messages and deter the messengers.
In fact, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been shown to be stunningly effective at a rate of 95% compared to the placebo group of participants, comparable to those universally used to prevent formerly common childhood diseases like measles and chicken pox.
Unfortunately, news media coverage has not always been helpful in conveying the significance of these vaccines. Some reports have emphasized the uncertainty associated with a heretofore untried, innovative approach that relies on messenger RNA to produce proteins that trigger the body’s immune system response. Others have warned that the vaccines might not protect patients from mutational variations, which certainly is possible, but the overall effect of mixed messages has left some with an unsettling sense of ambivalence.
Observers recently have voiced concern that the cautiousness of scientists’ communication style and message have limited the adoption of best practices, noting particularly that the emphasis on mask wearing has increased over the past year after it was downplayed in the early days of the outbreak. Just in the last week, WNYC’s On the Media radio program and New York Times columnist David Leonhart have raised questions as to the negative impact of inconsistent Covid-19 communications, and intimated that public health officials may be doing a disservice by warning that vaccines are not a panacea.
True, viral mutations may require that you remain socially distanced and masked to fully protect yourself and others for some time following vaccination, but the critical point is that vaccines at the very least will prevent serious illness; only one participant of the 32,000 enrolled in the Pfizer and Moderna trials became seriously ill with a Covid-19 infection following vaccination. Moreover, reports of a study just announced from the University of Oxford concluded that viral shedding (if not transmission) may be slowed markedly following vaccination even if someone is infected.
Related to all this, W2O addresses the importance of communicating particular messages as an effective means of boosting consumer confidence in vaccines. “The news cycle and vaccine developments will invariably affect consumer attitudes, as Americans are likely to be fickle. But if public health leaders emphasize themes of inclusiveness, availability, and voluntary choice, this will resonate with different segments of the population and lead to higher levels of vaccine confidence,” said Duncan.