Navigating COVID-19: Combatting Vaccine Hesitancy is Critically Important

Efforts are currently underway worldwide to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but widespread availability is most likely months away. Despite this reality, we must remember that vaccines already exist that can protect people against the risks associated with seasonal flu.

Once flu season begins, Americans will be confronted with two contagious viruses simultaneously. Large numbers of severe flu cases could put additional stress on the healthcare system. As a result, it will be more important for people to get a flu vaccination this year than ever before.

One challenge facing healthcare providers is obtaining enough doses of the flu vaccine. In addition to this logistics and supply chain issue, health plans and systems must also consider how to combat vaccine hesitancy among members and patients.

Understanding the Who, What and Why of Vaccine Hesitancy

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, the anti-vaccine community started spreading misinformation about different types of inoculations. In recent years, public awareness of “anti-vaxxers” has grown, due in large part to the false information distributed by this group about an alleged link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism in children. Even though medical experts have repeatedly disproven this connection, hesitancy about vaccines of all kinds has taken hold and it has been difficult to combat. In 2019, the World Health Organization cited vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health.

So, why are people reluctant to get vaccines like childhood immunizations, flu shots, and more? Common reasons include:

  • Perceptions about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine
  • The impression that the health condition treated by the vaccine is no longer a threat
  • Concerns that the government is overstepping its bounds and treading on individual freedoms

Anti-vaccine groups cultivate apprehension and fear about vaccines through the use of behavioral science. They often take advantage of cognitive bias. Humans are attracted to information that agrees with their beliefs. By appealing to existing concerns about vaccines that aren’t based on scientific evidence, anti-vaxxers create a “bandwagon effect” and perpetuate vaccine hesitancy.

Using Consumer Engagement to Address Vaccine Concerns

So, what can health plans and healthcare providers do to reduce vaccine hesitancy, as flu season looms? One promising approach is to deploy a consumer health engagement strategy with targeted outreach campaigns focused on the importance of getting a flu vaccine this fall. These campaigns should leverage principles from the Health Belief Model or HBM. The HBM predicts an individual’s health-related behaviors and can be used to optimize behavioral interventions.

An effective engagement campaign should respond to the following consumer mindsets:

  1. I don’t think I need to get a flu vaccine. Health plans and providers must highlight why a person could be susceptible to getting the flu or infecting others, such as elderly family members, friends, or community members.
  2. The flu isn’t so bad – I’m not going to get a vaccine. Communication campaigns should convey the dangers of the flu.
  3. It’s not worth going to the trouble of getting a flu shot. The benefits of getting a flu vaccine are greater this year than ever before. Avoiding a serious case of the flu has the potential to free hospital beds and providers to care for individuals with COVID-19. Keeping vulnerable populations safe is also a compelling reason to get immunized.
  4. I can’t afford the flu shot and even if I could, I have no way to get to the doctor’s office. The healthcare system must address financial barriers to flu shots. Fortunately, many health plans already cover flu vaccines under the category of preventive care. To address transportation-related obstacles, healthcare providers may decide to hold community flu clinics in multiple locations.
  5. People I respect have recommended that I get a flu vaccine. Many people are motivated to action by the expectations of people they respect, such as doctors or family members. Consumer engagement campaigns should underscore that primary care physicians recommend getting a flu shot. Appealing to concerns about family wellness can also be effective.

Campaigns that influence consumer health behaviors tend to use communication that conveys empathy, builds rapport and resonates with the recipient, and reinforces key messages. Outreach should also be tailored to different demographic groups, such as ethnicity, age, geographic location, underlying conditions, and more. This type of targeting is important to keep in mind, since infections like COVID-19 often impact certain demographic groups more severely than others.

Looking Beyond Flu Season

Vaccine hesitancy is a concern that’s top of mind with regard to flu vaccines this year. However, this issue will continue be a potential stumbling block once a viable COVID-19 vaccine is developed. Taking a strategic and proactive approach to consumer engagement is the key to convincing people that vaccines of all kinds are valuable both for their own health and the wellbeing of the community at large.

To learn more about how to navigate the current healthcare landscape, register for our upcoming webinar: The Flu-COVID Collision: Best Practices to Keep Your Population Healthy This Fall.”

The editorial staff had no role in this post's creation.