The next vaccine hurdle? Convincing a skeptical public


The next vaccine hurdle? Convincing a skeptical public
—By Jim Murez, University Communications

UO faculty weigh in on steps that could bring the pandemic scourge to an earlier end


When the College of Design’s Benjamin Clark and Bob Parker ran a statewide survey asking Oregonians whether they would take a COVID-19 vaccine, the results illustrated the challenges facing state health officials in eliminating the coronavirus.

Of the respondents, 24 percent said they would not take a vaccine and 33 percent indicated they might get vaccinated.

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Benjamin Clark

“It’s disheartening in some ways to see the uphill battle we have to get back to normal”
Benjamin Clark, planning, public policy and management

“The fact that there is a third of the state that is hesitant, and the fact that their hesitancies are not based on things that are real, it’s disheartening in some ways to see the uphill battle we have to get back to normal,” Clark said.

Among those fears were that they could contract COVID-19 from the vaccine or they will be allergic to it because they’ve had allergic reactions to other vaccines.

UO faculty members said that while the roots of distrust around the vaccine may run deep, it is possible to convince those in the “undecideds” to understand the benefits of the vaccine. As for requiring people to get vaccinated, that question is still being answered.

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Seth Lewis

“The higher the stakes of the event or the crisis, the greater likelihood that there will be spammers and hackers doing their best to deceive people along the way”
Seth Lewis, journalism

Seth Lewis, professor and Papé Chair in the School of Journalism and Communication, studies how information spreads, and said the surge of misinformation accompanying major calamities such as a pandemic or natural disaster is nothing new.

“We all have to get a little bit better at recognizing that the higher the stakes of the event or the crisis, the greater likelihood that there will be spammers and hackers doing their best to deceive people along the way, often for political gain, but also for profit or other forms of self-interest,” Lewis said, noting that the World Health Organization has called the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 an “infodemic.”

One cause of the skepticism about COVID-19 and the vaccine stems from the quarantine. Lewis’ research and other data suggest that with people having more time on their hands, many are using it to do their own research online, leading them to sources that undermine public health guidance and ultimately leave people worse off informationally.

“It's a false confidence that leaves a lot of people in a really dangerous situation,” Lewis said. “By doing what they believe is their due diligence — they're putting terms into Google and they believe that constitutes fact-checking — it often leads them to disreputable sources or to information that may cast doubt on the value of journalism and institutional information.”

What’s more, Lewis said the anti-vaccination movement, which for years has been growing on Facebook groups and elsewhere on social media, provided a foundation of falsehoods and conspiracy theories from which deceivers have tried to sow doubt about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It taps into very deep wells of disinformation that have long existed on the internet,” Lewis said. “There was a ready-made community. Anti-vaxxers already had tools in their arsenal to attack the legitimacy of the vaccine.”

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Elliot Berkman

“You want to provide information in an even-handed way”
Elliot Berkman, pyschology

Trying to convince people otherwise takes a measured approach, said psychology professor Elliot Berkman, who researches how we make decisions.

“You want to provide information in an even-handed way, come at it from a way to support the person's autonomy,” Berkman said. “It's like, ‘Hey, this is your choice. I'm not going to force you to do this one way or the other. This is a choice you can make, but here's the information that I believe. And here's the reasons I believe it, and here's the choice that I'm making.’”

For people belonging to certain groups, mistrust based on past practices enters the equation when deciding whether to take the vaccine, Berkman added.

People in minority groups, particularly African-Americans and Black people, that in the past were unknowingly subjected to scientific tests without informed consent, may understandably be reluctant to take a vaccine, given that history, Berkman said.

“They rightly have suspicions,” Berkman added.

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“There are still a lot of people who are planning to get that vaccine. Communicating that…would be a good strategy”
Ellen Peters, journalism

With the proper communications, however, it is possible to help people understand the benefits of vaccination, said Ellen Peters of the School of Journalism and Communications, who researches how effective science communication can drive better decision-making.

“The information needs to come from trusted sources who know what the science is, who are relying on good science, because you can sometimes have trusted sources who are not relying on good science,” Peters said.

Depending on the audience, trusted sources can include health authorities, educators, student-athletes and religious leaders.

Another technique is to establish vaccination as a “social norm,” that is, everyone is doing it and it’s OK.

“Social norms guide and direct our behaviors,” Peters said. “We tend to conform to what other people around us are doing. In this case, although there are vaccine-hesitant people, there are still a lot of people who are planning to get that vaccine. Communicating about that as a social norm, that lots of people are planning on getting it, would be a good strategy.”

Focusing on the value of vaccinations — that it helps protects those around you — would bolster that effort, she said. And for people who are hesitant because they don’t feel they can fit it into their schedules, communicators need to help remove any barriers.

“They’d like to do the right thing, but you know what? They've got kids, they've got classes, they've got 50 million things going on in their lives,” Peters said. “Reduce those barriers as much as possible. Make sure we're making it easy, and then communicate how and why it's easy to do.”

When it comes to requiring people to get a vaccine, that is still undecided. And little urgency exists to make a decision as long as the vaccine is in short supply, said School of Law professor Liz Tippett, an expert in labor law.

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Liz Tippett

“There's this push and pull around returning to the office and the vaccine”
Liz Tippett, law

“As a practical matter, you can't require something you can't get,” Tippett said.

She recently attended a presentation on COVID-19 law issues that included several employers, and while they were eager for the vaccine’s distribution, they were also divided on whether to require it.

“My experience with employers is they're bandwagon types,” Tippett said. “They're like the fashion industry: They want to do what everyone else is doing.”

Companies will typically see what their lawyers, industry groups and government authorities recommend they do and observe what their peer institutions are doing.

“Nobody wants to stick their neck out,” Tippett said.

“I think the vaccine question seems to be tied up pretty closely with reopening offices, either because they want people to be vaccinated before they call them back to the office or because the employees themselves are saying, ‘I don't want to come back until everyone's vaccinated,’” she said. “And so there's this push and pull around returning to the office and the vaccine.”

At the presentation on COVID-19, Tippett said the discussion included providing incentives to workers to get the vaccine.

“Incentives are generally considered less legally risky than a straight-up ‘You're fired if you don't do this,’ even though in many cases you actually could tell someone they're fired if they don't get vaccinated,” Tippett said.

Tippett said implementing rules on whether to fire an employee who refuses to get vaccinated would be similar to those around wearing a company uniform or signing a nondisclosure agreement or showing up for work on time.

“There's an infinite list of things that you can terminate someone for in a way that's consistent with the at-will doctrine,” Tippett said. “Adding one more thing to the different ways they're legally allowed to fire you is not inconsistent with our current approach to employment.”

Once we get enough people vaccinated to reach herd immunity levels, Peters said, we’ll all be better off.

“We’d love for our students, our faculty, our staff and the rest of our community to get vaccinated so that we can try to hit that 75 percent to 85 percent of the population getting the vaccine so that we have an umbrella of safety,” Peters said. “We want individuals and our community to be healthy.”