The COVID-19 Booster’s Public Relations Problem
Robin Fields (ProPublica) 03 October 2022
With a new coronavirus booster rolling out, a leading expert on vaccines explains how public health leaders have struggled to set expectations for the COVID-19 vaccine and convey clearly who benefits from each additional shot.
With the rollout this month of a new coronavirus booster, U.S. public health leaders once more face the challenge of persuading Americans that they should roll up their sleeves and get another, possibly better, shot targeted at the omicron strain.
This has become tougher with each successive vaccination campaign.
About 68% of the U.S. population has received either two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson, but only one-third has chosen to get a booster. In Canada, much of Europe, Japan and South Korea, people have chosen to get additional doses at far higher rates.
This summer, when COVID-19 vaccines were finally authorized in the U.S. for children under 5, they met with low demand. By mid-August, just under 5% of kids under 5 had received their first shots and only about 1% were fully vaccinated.
When it comes to the newest boosters, so far about 4.4 million peopleabout 1.5% of those eligible — had opted for the shots through Sept. 21, though reporting lags in some states.
This time around, the messaging also needs to overcome the publicly expressed qualms of some notable vaccine experts.
Several have said there’s inadequate proof that the reformulated booster shot will provide better protection than the original or that it’s been rushed out after being tested only on animals, not people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and other proponents of the new booster have countered that waiting for more evidence would have left the U.S. using a potentially outdated vaccine if, as expected, COVID-19 surges this fall and winter.
Among the most notable of the objectors is Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the Food and Drug Administration advisory committee that recommends whether to authorize vaccines and for whom. Offit has pristine pro-vaccine credentials: He’s the author of “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All” and has been one of the nation’s most vocal advocates for childhood vaccination.
We spoke to Offit about where he thinks the public messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters has broken down. The key group for health officials to reach, he said, isn’t those adamantly opposed to getting the vaccine or those who’d happily line up for 10 doses. It’s everyone else, he said, the ones thinking: “Do I really need another dose? How badly do I need this dose?”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defended the CDC’s and FDA’s messaging on vaccines and promoted the new booster: “We know we can save tens of thousands of lives if we can encourage the public to get their updated booster vaccine.” (See full statement here)
The stakes go beyond whether Americans will embrace each new COVID-19 shot, holding the potential to damage public confidence in all vaccines, Offit said. He pointed to four moments when leaders at the CDC, the FDA or in the Biden administration failed to communicate clearly what to expect from the COVID-19 vaccine and when and for whom extra shots could make a critical difference:
1. Vaccine meets world 
When the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were authorized in December 2020 and became available to an eager public, their makers and public health officials touted them as having efficacy rates of over 90% against mild, moderate and severe illness. Continue Reading
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