Where’s Elvis when we need him?
On Oct. 28, 1956, the 21-year-old from Tupelo, Mississippi, who’d already recorded “Love Me Tender” and in a matter of weeks would see himself on screen in the movie of the same name, was set to sing “Hound Dog” on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Before he took the stage, Elvis Presley offered up his right arm and took an injection of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.
The photograph that appeared in newspapers across the country — though Elvis could not rightly be called the King of Rock 'n' Roll at that point, his was a key celebrity endorsement — helped boost vaccination rates, particularly among teens. The disease had stricken tens of thousands of people, mostly children but also teenagers and adults, throughout the first half of the 20th century. By the end of the decade, its occurrence in the U.S. had fallen nearly 90%.
“Getting teenagers to take up the vaccine was critically important, and that success shows that it is possible to reach hard-to-influence groups — if you involve them in the right manner,” historian Stephen Mawdsley told the Guardian newspaper in April 2016.
It’s a lesson worth remembering on the cusp of the distribution of emergency vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Your decision to get vaccinated is an important step in protecting yourself and your family. Our collective decision to get vaccinated is what will truly change the course of this pandemic. But even amid so much economic calamity, stress, sickness and death, neither one is a forgone conclusion.
A poll released last week shows a significant uneasiness among Massachusetts residents about their willingness to get a COVID-19 shot. Though a vaccine is not yet available, Food and Drug Administration approval and the first round of vaccinations are expected in a matter of weeks.
Of 415 adults surveyed, 22% said they were “very unlikely” to get the vaccine, while 16% said they were “somewhat unlikely.” The biggest concerns were the sped-up approval process for vaccines and the potential side effects, according to a release by the polling institute at Western New England University.
“Despite the suffering and deprivation that people may have encountered either firsthand or through the experiences of others during the pandemic, a sizable percentage of the public right now is not convinced about the value of getting a vaccine,” institute Director Tim Vercellotti said in a release.
That’s especially troubling in Massachusetts, where people are usually more than willing to get their shots. The state typically has one of the highest rates of influenza vaccination in the country — at nearly 61% during last year’s flu season, we lagged Rhode Island and Connecticut by two-tenths and one-tenth of a percent. In the prior two flu seasons, Massachusetts has the second-highest vaccination rates, behind Rhode Island.
The ramifications of so many people’s reluctance will affect households where people aren't vaccinated. It also will bear on the community at large. Group vaccination shuts down the spread of disease. At a certain point, it protects even those who didn’t get their shots.
So what will it take to convince the lot of us of the safety of a new coronavirus vaccine, which in the case of the Moderna and Pfizer medicine involve relatively new technology?
Begin with science, evidence and transparency. So say David Bluestone and John Garrett, founders of the public opinion research company ClearPath Strategies, in a column co-written with Bay City Capital Managing Firector David Beier for the health news website STAT.
Their own research shows even less confidence in a coronavirus vaccine when people across the country are surveyed. The authors put the onus of making the case to the American public, with “sound principles of public health communication” targeted to key populations, on the incoming Biden administration.
A celebrity endorsement couldn't hurt, either.
Last week, former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton said, directly or through their offices, they would get the vaccine to boost public confidence. “I may end up taking it on TV or having it filmed, just so that people know that I trust this science,” Obama said on a recording of “The Joe Madison Show” on SiriusXM. “What I don’t trust is getting COVID.”
It may not be the same as seeing Elvis get his polio shot. But certainly it will be a good start.