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The most challenging influencer marketing question of the moment is how to convince vaccine doubters to become vaccinated. Wisely, public health and communications experts are talking to people who changed their mind about getting vaccinated to find out what and who convinced them.

The Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor shows the percentage of Americans to receive or be ready to get at least one dose has risen from 6 percent in January to 32 percent in March. Another third of the population is holding back or reluctant to be vaccinated..

Marketing COVID-19 vaccines to hesitant Americans has emerged as a priority as vaccination rates have tapered off, even in the face of ample supply and easier access. President Biden issued new guidance this week with the goal of 70 percent of Americans receiving at least one COVID-19 shot by July. A third of eligible Americans have been fully vaccinated so far.

Vaccine hesitancy appears to correlate with political registration. The US counties with the fewest vaccinated adults are mostly counties carried by Donald Trump in the 2020 election. “I just never in a million years ever expected my field of work to become less medical and more political,” Hailey Bloom, a registered Republican and public information officer for the health department in Natrona County, Wyoming, told The New York Times.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz has provided insight into overcoming vaccine hesitancy through a series of Zoom focus groups, which began in March. Reasons cited by participants who changed their minds included:

  • Explanations by credible public health experts, doctors and pharmacists;
  • Learning about the long-term effects of coronavirus; and
  • Realizing vaccinations could open the door to travel, going back to work and resuming pre-pandemic social life.

Two early focus group participants returned to a later Luntz focus group to announce they had been convinced to get the vaccine. They credited remarks by Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Obama. One said, “He explained the situation much better than Dr. Fauci.”

Others said they overcame their hesitancy by listening to COVID-19 long-haulers describe their lingering symptoms or realizing the vaccination was a passport to go on a cruise or return to their place of work. Physicians and health care workers received praise from these converts. One woman singled out her pharmacist as her go-to resource. “My doctor prescribes everything, but the pharmacist is the one who took the time to let me know about side effects.”

Many of the conspiracy theories will be hard to displace. The trick will be to convince people who believe them and traffic in them that it’s smart to hedge their bets and get the jab. That will only happen through interactions marked by patience, persistence and proven facts provided by trusted messengers.

Several participants expressed confusion and concern resulting from media reports on the different vaccine candidates as they moved through the clinical trial and regulatory process. It was as if there were too many choices that muddied the water. Others pointed to the out-of-control pandemic in India as a cautionary tale.

A participant who identified as a Democrat attributed his fear of the vaccine to the 2007 movie, I Am Legend, which centers on a botched cancer cure that kills people or turns them into monsters. He overcame his fear, he said, by listening to epidemiologists describe the testing that led to authorization of vaccines administered to Americans. He also concluded that he didn’t want to end up as a zombie. A Republican woman said she was convinced the vaccines were safe by the doctor who successfully treated her daughter.

However, PhDs and white coats have not convinced all doubters. Luntz conducted a focus group of young adults with diverse ethnicities and political views. The prevailing view was younger adults are at lesser risk than older adults. Some young black participants said they were less worried about contracting the virus than running afoul of the police.

Luntz’ research efforts have drawn brickbats from both political conservatives and liberals. Tucker Carlson of Fox News says Luntz is a pawn of the pharmaceutical industry. Progressives say Trump-supporting anti-vaxxers are a lost cause. The Biden administration takes a different approach, praising the focus groups and the effort by the de Beaumont Foundation to work with the GOP Doctors Caucus on a series of public service announcements aimed at hesitant Republicans.

The leader of the GOP Doctors Caucus appears in an ad wearing a white coat instead of a dark suit. “What separates us from the former presidents [who did a group PSA earlier this year] is we’re all physicians and health-care providers,” explains Congressman Brad Wenstrup, a podiatrist. “We’re doing the ads in white coats because that’s what people trust.”

GOP Congresswoman Marianette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, an ophthalmologist and the first female president of the Iowa Medical Society, says in her PSA, “As a doctor, I made the decision to get vaccinated against COVID-19. I know the facts and I think it was the right choice to make. I fully respect that this is your decision to make. Talk to your doctor. Get all the information you need. And decide which vaccine is best for you.”

What appears to convince reluctant people to get vaccinated is evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective at preventing hospitalization or death..

It likely will take more than Republican congressmen in white coats to persuade reluctant Americans, regardless of their political persuasion. The Biden administration is betting that convenience will make a difference, thus the push for individual vaccinations at local pharmacies instead of mass vaccinations at convention centers and basketball arenas.

To reach the 70 percent target and approach so-called herd immunity also will require many one-on-one conversations, between patients and medical providers and between trusted friends and family members.

Many of the conspiracy theories will be hard to displace. The trick will be to convince people who believe them and traffic in them that it’s smart to hedge their bets and get the jab. That will only happen through interactions marked by patience, persistence and proven facts provided by trusted messengers.