Confidence is key of COVID-19 vaccine arrives soon in Kansas
If Kansas wants the coronavirus vaccine to help bring the economy back, it’ll have to first convince Kansans like Rocky Restivo.
“The first version of anything is always flawed,” said Restivo, who coaches Pittsburg State University’s dance team. “I really want this COVID vaccine to be successful, but I also know that we are tiptoeing on sacred ground with this rushed timeline.”
Only two weeks ago, the state submitted its first draft of a plan to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, should one become available. A vaccine could arrive as soon as mid-November, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told states to be ready for one by Nov. 15.
But the state’s draft plan itself hinted at potential barriers to successful distribution, from transportation to cold storage.
A big hurdle, among those challenges, will be public skepticism of the vaccine. According to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, just 46% of Americans want a COVID-19 vaccine.
The plan counters that with a communication strategy, albeit one that is vague for now. The state would target essential workers, at-risk groups and those with limited access to a vaccine with messaging centered around vaccine safety and transparency.
Focusing on the science- and evidence-based approach is important for the government to win folks over, said Dan Leong, who chairs the Immunize Kansas Coalition, a group that aims to increase vaccination rates in the state.
“What we've seen nationally, and we've seen in Kansas, is just this whole rise in vaccine misinformation,” he said. “Vaccine hesitancy is like one of the top national problems.”
Indeed, the plan states as one of its communication activities the need to dispel “myths.” The state also includes a big focus on keeping the public updated on the evolving nature of vaccine developments and stressing the vaccine’s authorization process, safety and efficacy.
Leong added that having “clinical champions” such as pediatricians and family practice physicians back up the vaccine’s credibility tends to lead to acceptance and high vaccination rates.
But simply talking about science won’t be enough, said Brett Bricker, of the University of Kansas, who has researched vaccine skepticism.
“What we found was that people were not necessarily always easily convinced by the kind of plain reading of science,” he said. “Partially that has to do with a lack of faith in science, and partially that has to do with the way that those findings are disseminated and communicated to the public.”
Instead, Bricker suggested using narrative or storytelling, which he said could be even more convincing than quantitative scientific studies. Having someone relatable go through the experience of vaccination can help Kansans visualize that process and see it as something everybody should do.
“I can even see like (Kansas City Chiefs player) Patrick Mahomes doing an advertisement where he got the vaccine, and describes his body's reaction to it,” Bricker said.
While safety concerns are important, they are not the only barriers to increasing vaccine confidence, he said, adding that the draft’s communication plan should address factors beyond safety. One such factor is politics, or more specifically, the politicization of the vaccine.
Glenda Overstreet Vaughn, former president of the Kansas and Topeka chapters of the NAACP, said that issue has to be tackled.
“What I had been hearing from others in the community, a lot of their hesitation in being receptive of a vaccine really stems from the current national administration,” Vaughn said, referring to the idea that President Donald Trump had made the vaccine an election issue.
On the other hand, the opposite effect may take place in rural areas, said Brock Slabach, of the National Rural Health Association, based in the Kansas City area.
“There could be, because of the credibility to the vaccine that's coming from the president that would be transferred, which would be a huge help, no question in the rural population,” said Slabach.
Fixing the politicization issue would require a united front on encouraging vaccination from politicians of both parties in the state and national levels, which is a Herculean task, said Bricker.
Access to the vaccine will also play an important role in someone choosing to and having confidence in vaccination, he said. Having to drive a long distance or not having the resources to get a vaccine could deter folks.
Slabach said that many rural hospitals and providers don’t have capabilities of cold storage, which some coronavirus vaccines may require. Delivery of vaccines from urban centers will also be difficult. All those logistics will require immense amounts of time and money.
But if access is equal, he said he expects vaccination rates in rural areas to be same as rates elsewhere, pointing to how the flu vaccine has not seen an urban-rural discrepancy.
Lastly, there’s the factor of race, Bricker said, that the state should address.
“Black, indigenous and Latino people in the United States have a much more skeptical approach towards vaccines,” he said. “This is based on a history of mistreatment by the scientific community and in particular federal projects about or using science and vaccines.”
The most notorious historical example is the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which research on 600 Black men went on for 40 years without consent, and no adequate treatment was ever given to them.
The state’s draft communication plan makes only vague mentions referring to race, saying things like messaging will include “nuances specific to Kansas’ demographics and composition.” Other than that, the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, as well as its Latino and Native American counterparts, are included in the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Implementation Committee.
Executive director Kenya Cox of the African American Affairs Commission acknowledged that historical mistrust, and said whoever speaks to Black communities across Kansas on the vaccine must come from those communities.
“One of the things that I know that we would work very diligently about, is educating our influencers, and our trusted voices in the community first, so we would spend some time just acclimating them and educating them on the safety and all of the different points related to the vaccine,” she said. “And so that they could speak intelligently and with confidence in sharing that information broadly across the African American community.”
In the messaging targeted at Black communities, the state must emphasize transparency and rely on trusted leaders, Cox said.
But Vaughn said the problem is more deeply rooted, with Black Kansans having a deep mistrust of the broader medical system stemming from racially unequal access to proper health care. Those broader systemic reasons are also the reason why Black people have been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus in the first place.
“There are a number of people in the community across the state who have not had any type of exposure with the African American Affairs Commission for quite some time,” Vaughn said of the commission, which is under the governor’s office. “In order to ensure and have confidence ... there needs to be more visibility, more partnership, more interaction.”
In short, there needs to be a strong relationship established first with the Black community in Kansas before any vaccine confidence can be gained, she said.
Vaughn also expressed concern over the state’s draft plan to target vaccines at populations with underlying medical conditions in the plan’s first phase, which could disproportionately include African Americans. She added many would not feel comfortable being first in line to get the vaccine, almost as if like guinea pigs.
“You just can't say, ’Okay, we've got a vaccine,’ and then come into the neighborhood, ’We've got a vaccine here, because so many of you are at risk, we want you to take this first.’ That's not going to work,” she said.
Ultimately, Vaughn imagines that if relations don’t improve and a COVID-19 vaccine arrives, there will be a “slower stream” of Black people coming in to get vaccinated.
Perhaps most Kansans initially skeptical of the vaccine will eventually turn their mind around, just as Restivo expects himself to.
“I’m really hesitant, but at the same time, if the science is proven, it will probably sway me,” he said.