The Vaccine Paradox: Navigating “Can’t” and “Won’t”

Many of us spent much of 2020 anxiously waiting for science to provide answers. We hung on every piece of news coming from the research community, hoping against the odds that COVID-19 vaccines could be developed, tested, and distributed well ahead of the years-long time frame that is typical of vaccine rollout.

Now more than a year into the pandemic, we know that the science has come through for us. Building on years of prior foundational research, scientists have, in record time, created several highly effective and safe vaccines that are now being widely distributed—a miraculous accomplishment, especially when considering the challenges involved.

There is not much disagreement among medical and public health experts that these vaccines are indeed our best path forward to end the pandemic and eliminate the threat that COVID-19 poses to our communities. So, is it time to celebrate? And start making plans for our return to normalcy?

Unfortunately, not yet. Ending a pandemic takes more than just the hard sciences like biology and chemistry—it takes a dose of the social and behavioral sciences as well. Vaccines can only help eradicate diseases if they’re actually administered, and this is where we are finding an interesting paradox.

On one hand, a substantial segment of the population can’t access a vaccine, while another large group of people have access to a vaccine but won’t take it. Overcoming these barriers is as important as the vaccine itself. This is where social and behavioral science comes in.

The Can’t Problem: “I can’t access the vaccine.”

The inability for certain people to access vaccines is rooted in structural conditions that are not easily dismantled, such as wealth inequality. Social scientists have been grappling with these inequities for decades, but in the case of COVID-19, they must be addressed with urgency. Since no vaccine is 100% effective, none of us will be truly safe from COVID-19 until the disease is substantially diminished through herd immunity. Vaccine access is first and foremost a moral issue, but we all have an interest in addressing this problem—our health and safety rests on ensuring that effective vaccines are freely accessible across the globe. If access to vaccines continues to depend on things like where people live and what their means are, we will be dealing with COVID-19 for much longer than we need to be.

Learn more about the “can’t problem.” Read the article from Mind+Matter.

The Won’t Problem: “I won’t take the vaccine.”

The “won’t” problem may be even more challenging. Anti-vaccination sentiment has been a long-brewing threat to our continued safety from diseases like mumps or measles, but it is perhaps even more complicated in relation to COVID-19. Like the disease itself, the vaccines for COVID-19 are brand new, so they haven’t been tested over the long term. Even those who are “pro-vax” under normal circumstances might hit the pause button before volunteering to be first in line for a new vaccine.

Of course, these are not normal times. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, we often had the luxury of taking a wait-and-see approach because there was no obvious threat looming. But even though the threat of COVID-19 is real, the choice to take the vaccine is not clear for many. Unfortunately, general anti-vaccination sentiment likely predisposed some to skepticism long before the COVID-19 vaccines were developed. Many people perceive COVID-19 as less threatening than the vaccines despite the disease’s far more devastating impact. Historically, people haven’t been very good at assessing which risks they should or shouldn’t act on. In the case of COVID-19, this issue is exacerbated by the tremendous volume of misinformation circulating on the internet and social media.

There is no denying that COVID-19 vaccine refusal is a complex and daunting problem, and there are no simple fixes. That said, it is thankfully the type of problem that behavioral scientists and healthcare marketers have experience studying and addressing. While both the virus and the vaccines may be new, tried and true behavioral science can help us curb the pandemic by picking up where the hard sciences left off.

Read more topics on vaccines from the Ashfield Health Network.

MicroMass | 6 Points to Consider with Vaccine Messaging
— Mindy Vulpis, PhD, Behaviorist II

Mind+Matter | Vaccines bring us closer… except when they don’t
— Rhianna Goozee, Senior Medical Writer

Mindy Vulpis, PhD, is a behaviorist II at MicroMass, an Ashfield Health Company. She applies behavioral science strategies to help support patients in making decisions and changes that benefit their health. She is currently working with pharmaceutical clients in the oncology, fertility, and pituitary disease spaces.