As vaccine demand cools, some warm to idea of new messaging tactics

IN RECENT DAYS, vaccine availability in Rhode Island has outpaced demand. Some are calling on the state change its messaging tactics to reach newly eligible age groups. / AP FILE PHOTO/TED S. WARREN
IN RECENT DAYS, vaccine availability in Rhode Island has outpaced demand. Some are calling on the state change its messaging tactics to reach newly eligible age groups. / AP FILE PHOTO/TED S. WARREN

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island has reached a point where it has more vaccine supply than demand for it. And the population that has yet to be vaccinated may still think they don’t need it.

That’s the challenge facing public health officials, who are trying to encourage people to become fully vaccinated as quickly as possible. The state opened up eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccines on April 19 to all residents ages 16 and older.

But as the eligibility increased, it was clear that people were not snapping up appointments at the rate they had in older cohorts. 

On Thursday, as Gov. Daniel J. McKee prepared to deliver his weekly pandemic response update, the state had 5,638 appointments still available on the state registration website. Another 12,000 appointments will be opened on Friday afternoon.

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When asked by the Providence Business News whether the state should change its messaging to get younger people vaccinated, McKee said his administration would be continuing to seek out communities where people have shown hesitancy, including meeting with people personally. McKee said the state will also meet with business owners. The message needs to be about economics and safety and getting schools reopened, he said.

When contacted before McKee’s briefing, Dr. Michael Fine, former state health director and the public health coordinator for Pawtucket and Central Falls, who has worked closely on the COVID-19 response in those communities, said it is not surprising that the state has reached a point of having more vaccine doses than demand. Access is one of the problems, Fine said.

The state could make some scheduling changes: make more appointments at night, make it easier for people to walk into a pharmacy or a supermarket and get a vaccine without an appointment, Fine said.

The state messaging would also be more effective if it stopped emphasizing how “safe” the vaccine is,  he said.

“Because I think when you say the vaccine is safe, what people hear is, ‘They’re saying that because it’s not safe,’ ” Fine said.

Michael Raia, vice president of strategic communications for Johnson & Wales University, said reaching millennials and younger people in Generation Z, requires a different tone and style. For much of the past year, they’ve been more or less told that they would probably not have a severe reaction to COVID-19 if they contracted it, because of their age.

So, the message now could focus on their propensity to care about their communities and the fact that the oldest people of the newly eligible group are having children – who cannot be vaccinated yet.

“Millennials are in their mid-30s. They’re buying houses. They’re having kids. If the messaging becomes about doing this for your kids, doing this for your friends, your neighbors … A message like that will resonate,” said Raia, who recently received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Ryan J. Crowley, 32, who works with Raia, got his first dose on Tuesday with his wife. He suspects that fatigue over the pandemic and the vaccine have started to influence people. “We’re starting to hear, every day, different things,” Crowley said. “Is there a need for a booster shot? What’s happening with the Johnson & Johnson shots? I think there’s more of an attitude of ‘I’ll get it eventually’ for the younger-aged groups instead of the older-aged groups who wanted to get it as soon as possible.”

Turning more to social media and getting platform “influencers” involved would make a difference, Crowley said.

Fine’s instinct is that the vaccination process should be made more of a fun “event.” Turn it into a party, he said. Make it less serious. Make it socially popular.

Unless made mandatory, vaccinations are something that people often duck if they can, he said. “Nobody likes needles. This one is particularly difficult. Because if you’re 18 to 50, you feel like you’re taking a shot not to protect yourself, but maybe to protect other people. You feel, and rightfully so, this is unlikely to hospitalize or kill you,” Fine said.

Richard Dias, general manager of Providence-based towing company Grasso’s Service Center Inc., in Olneyville, will be fully vaccinated as of April 27. He knows family members and some employees who are wary of vaccination partly because of misconceptions spreading about vaccines on social media. “They don’t trust it,” he said. 

“It’s definitely frustrating because you see how good, well-meaning people can be misled or their misconceptions are fed by social media and by other people who are reading things on social media,” Dias said. “They’re not getting information from doctors.”

Some people, such as Fine, think that vaccination mandates and “passports” would be something to explore. But McKee on Thursday said that the state will not require vaccination for people to attend indoor events, or mass events, for example.

The state is encouraging people to get vaccinated, but it will not require so-called “vaccination passports” for people to attend events.

“Right now, we’re not going to mandate that from our seat,” said McKee. “We will work with different businesses and organizations that are having these events, to see if that’s something they want to do. If they can put a sign up that says: ‘Everyone in here is vaccinated’ they may very well do that.”

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at MacDonald@PBN.com. James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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