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Public Health Expert Calls To Repair Distrust In A COVID-19 Vaccine


Scientists are working around the clock to find a vaccine. And if successful, it could mean the end to this pandemic. But a poll conducted by The Associated Press in May showed that only half of Americans said they're willing to get a coronavirus vaccine. And that included people who are normally up to date with their vaccinations. So what needs to happen to convince Americans to get vaccinated? And do they have a right to be skeptical? Dr. Sandra Quinn is the chair of the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland, College Park. She's joining us from Washington, D.C.


SANDRA QUINN: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: What was your reaction to that AP poll?

QUINN: I can't say that I'm very surprised. In 2009 at the beginning of the H1N1 pandemic, when we also were looking for a new vaccine for that strain of flu, my own research at that point showed very low rates of acceptance, with African Americans being the lowest group, whites and Latinos actually higher. And when I say higher, Leila, still everyone was under 20% who said, yes, I'm going to get this vaccine. That was a different era. And today, what we're living in is actually a period where we have forces that undermine science, contradictory messages day in and day out that create skepticism and diminish trust in government.

FADEL: So how difficult does that make scientists work, then, in a moment where science is being undermined - that the messaging, is don't trust scientists?

QUINN: Well, I think it makes the work tough in a couple of different ways. Number one is that the first thing we need to do is recruit thousands of people for vaccine trials. The question will be initially, do we have enough people and enough diverse samples so that we have Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos, people of all ages, gender, all of those things in order for us to know whether this vaccine is going to be safe and effective with people who may have different health issues, different ages, et cetera? But I think there is some other hurdles. And that is we need to start today in getting our public ready for understanding this process. So one of the things we have to do is start, really, in language that the general public understands - is, what is this process? What are these clinical trials? What does it mean to be in a Phase 3 trial?

FADEL: But what does that look like for the public? How do you explain any of that in a way that will make them less skeptical?

QUINN: One of the ways that we regain some of this trust is state and local health departments, working with community partners. They may be health care systems. They may be the NAACP. They may be churches and mosques and synagogues. They may be boys and girls clubs. You know, part of what we need to do is put some resources and time into reaching out and saying, what are your questions about the vaccine? What are your concerns about the vaccine? They saw the FDA approved hydroxychloroquine initially and then pulled that approval back. Probably never should have been approved in the first place. But, you know, their credibility is on the line here as FDA. So to repair some of that trust, we have to be absolutely transparent.

FADEL: Right. So it sounds like there needs to be a public service campaign at the same time as the science is happening. But I wonder if everything goes - the best case scenario - the science works. The FDA approval comes through. This vaccine works. If half of the country doesn't take the vaccine, does it matter if it works?

QUINN: Here's what I think can help us. Unlike H1N1, where the disease was pretty mild for most people, I think as this continues to happen, people are going to perceive the risk as high. But what I also know from my own research is we will have to address things. Like, we can't sugar coat perceived risk of the vaccine - that we have to talk about both those things. Talking about just disease risks to people will not do the trick.

I also think what we know is that social norms make a difference. And so I know that in my own research that if you believe that all the people you love and that care for you think you should get the vaccine, you are more likely to get it. So part of that campaign that may include, you know, local and state health departments, the CDC, ideally the federal - you know, the administration, you know, civic leaders, religious leaders, celebrities, you know, all of those people. As they come out and start saying, I got the vaccine and here's why I did that, those things can help to shift that. We can do this, but it's not going to be an easy road.

FADEL: Dr. Sandra Quinn is the chair of the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland, College Park. Thank you so much for joining us.

QUINN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.