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Targeted messaging necessary to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, UH study finds

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As the vaccine supply increases in Hawaii, targeted communication is needed to encourage more people to get immunized against COVID-19, according to a new report by the University of Hawaii’s College of Social Sciences.

The report’s recommendations released Monday were based on data from recent biweekly “Pulse” surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau on vaccine use and attitudes in Hawaii. According to the surveys, 55% of adults 18 and older said they will “definitely” or “probably” get shots, while 12% indicated they will “definitely not” or “probably not” get vaccinated, compared with 17% in the U.S.

The hesitancy is due to access issues such as transportation and online sche­- duling, perceived harm from taking the vaccine, and mistrust of government, scientists and drug companies, according to the Pulse surveys. Other concerns include the belief that vaccines are unnecessary or ineffective and were developed too quickly for proper studies.

The state hopes to get as much as 60% to 70% of the population vaccinated in order to reach so-called herd immunity.

“We are seeing over time people being less hesitant,” Jessica Gasiorek, associate professor in the UH Department of Communicology, told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser. “The most important takeaways are just identifying … why are people hesitant. If we know what people are concerned about … then we can craft messages that specifically address those issues.”

While 31% of adults in the islands have received at least one dose, “the complication is that while individuals may say they will get a vaccine … they may not be able to follow through,” Hye-ryeon Lee, a professor in the Department of Communicology, said in a news release.

Of the 36% of survey respondents who said they will definitely take the shot, the group generally was older and had challenges with computer access and skills to make an appointment, as well as transportation and work issues.

Communication for this particular group should come from “trusted sources such as the Department of Health, scientists, medical professionals … and community leaders,” the UH report noted, with an emphasis on reducing access barriers.

The 19% of respondents who said they will probably get immunized included people with varying education levels. More than half were between the ages of 25 and 54, with hesitancy revolving around “perceived harm and a deference to others.”

Hesitancy is “driven by concerns about vaccine safety and side effects, as well as a feeling that there are others who may need the vaccine more,” the UH report said.

“To address these barriers, it is important to acknowledge that, while side effects can occur, most reactions are normal and not dangerous,” Gasiorek said. “It will take time to persuade this group that the vaccine is safe, effective and beneficial for them to receive.”

Of the 9% who said they will probably not accept the vaccine, they were generally younger, with less formal education and of mixed ethnicity (disproportionately nonwhite and non-Asian), the Pulse surveys showed, with the group sharing concerns about safety, side effects and efficacy.

“Communication strategies for this group should address these concerns, as well as their mistrust,” said professor Ruben Juarez of the UH Department of Economics and Economic Research Organization, recommending that messaging come through friends, religious leaders or trusted community elders.

The final group — 3% of respondents — who indicated they would definitely not get vaccinated were younger and with less formal education, disproportionately female, strongly anti-vaccine and distrusting of the government — and highly unlikely to change their minds.

“The most effective approach may involve the im­plementation of policies or regulations for certain activities,” including making vaccines mandatory for air travel, requiring them for work or to patronize certain businesses, the UH report noted.

“Not everybody is going to believe or find compelling messages that come from government officials,” Ga­siorek said. “People need to trust the source of a message for that message to be taken seriously.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID data tracker reported 614,208 doses administered in Hawaii so far, at a rate of 43,380 doses per 100,000 residents, including vaccinations by the military and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hawaii health officials reported 79 new coronavirus infections Monday, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 28,851 cases. The statewide death toll remains at 454 with no new coronavirus deaths reported.

Messaging recommendations:

>> Provide convincing evidence that the vaccine is safe.

>> Communicate that side effects can occur but they are not dangerous.

>> Emphasize the importance of taking action when it is “your turn.”

>> Reduce access barriers with clear information addressing issues such as transportation, time off work, cost and process.

>> Provide concrete “calls to action” telling people what to do to get vaccinated and when each group is eligible.

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