The recent failure of workplace vaccine mandates in the Supreme Court means we have to look for fresh ideas to get the last third of Americans vaccinated. Here’s a tool no one has tried: activating the millions of Americans who are vaccinated to influence the choices of those who aren’t.
In his news conferences and other public appearances, President Biden and other public health officials have appealed directly to unvaccinated Americans with anger, fear and shame. It hasn’t worked.
It’s time for our government and public health officials to focus instead on people who have already taken the vaccine. We should thank them for keeping themselves and the people around them safe. And then ask them to talk to the people they love about getting vaccinated.
People who aren’t vaccinated don’t trust Biden, Anthony Fauci, or the CDC for information about Covid-19. They are unlikely to be listening or to see any prominent public health authorities as a trusted messenger if they are. However, they do trust their friends and loved ones for this kind of information. Biden’s approval ratings are higher among people who are vaccinated, so they are more likely to tune in and accept this call to action. Approach matters as well. Unpleasant emotions like anger, fear and shame tend to make people tune out, but pleasant emotions like pride and hope are associated with agency and action.
These insights are guided by data from a survey of 4,000 Americans that the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida conducted last year, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Our survey included more than 700 unvaccinated people who do not intend to become vaccinated. Many in this group reported that they don’t trust political figures or national health authorities for information about Covid-19. But they do trust the people closest to them. Our survey also revealed that most people are comfortable talking about vaccination with the people around them.
To date, there’s been no concerted mobilization of everyday Americans to talk to the people they interact with regularly about the importance of vaccination. But it could be the most powerful public health tool we’re not using.
Mobilizing people to talk about vaccination requires some basic self-awareness and skills. The first step is to assess whether you’re a trusted messenger for the person you hope to convince. Do you confide in one another? Do you share interests? Has this person ever asked you for advice or accepted a recommendation, even for something as simple as a restaurant or movie? If the answer is yes, then you may be able to convince them..