Now is the time to prepare for the availability of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, particularly since currently only 65 percent of Americans report they will be willing to get a FDA-approved vaccine provided at no cost. A vaccine will be an essential component to fully reopening schools and businesses and getting back to the activities that we love, so we must develop ways to improve uptake now, before the vaccine is available.
For sure, in addition to being affordable, receiving the vaccine should be convenient, particularly if it ends up requiring multiple doses. It should be offered at schools, employers, and pharmacies, at minimum. Furthermore, for those who wish to receive the vaccine at their doctor’s office, receiving the vaccine should not require a separate doctor’s appointment for each family member. However, these efforts by the brightest minds in health care and public health will likely be insufficient to achieve herd immunity for COVID-19; we will need to be more creative and harness another natural resource — the power of celebrity.
When rates of uptake of the polio vaccine were concerningly low among teenagers and adults in 1956, Elvis Presley lent his fame to the cause and was vaccinated on the Ed Sullivan show. Fast forward 64 years; which well-known individuals would be willing to step up and get the COVID-19 vaccine in the public eye to encourage others? We established a registry of people who are willing to join COVID-19 vaccine trials — why not establish a list of those willing to use their fame to advocate for vaccination?
It is unlikely that one individual will inspire everyone — we need many national and local influencers including star athletes, actors, musicians, community leaders, and religious leaders. As one example, Broadway superstar Kristin Chenowith stepped up to promote COVID-19 testing on social media (and successfully hit a high note after the nasopharyngeal swab was removed!), and thus, thespians may see this video and get tested as needed. We will need a variety of influencers to effectively motivate different segments of the population to achieve herd immunity (estimated at 75-85 percent).
To be sure, we will need to harness the power of influencers to reach the communities most in need of the vaccine. COVID-19 infections and deaths have disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities, and now science is failing these groups again; COVID-19 vaccine trials have not done well in recruiting people who identify as Black and Latinx. It is not surprising that communities of color have not flocked to these trials, given the long history of brutal medical experimentation, research misconduct, and systemic racism. It will be an uphill battle to establish confidence in the vaccine in these communities, and it will likely not be the largely white medical or research community that can establish it because of this history.
We all saw how Tom Hanks’ COVID-19 diagnosis hit home that this disease will be a reality for those we love. We now need public figures to commit to being vaccinated. Only with widespread vaccination can we get back to do the activities that we love: hugging our relatives, traveling, and sending our kids to school.
Carly Goldstein, PhD is an assistant professor at Brown University in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.
Becca Krukowski, PhD is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in the Department of Preventive Medicine.