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Clockwise from top left: Kate Blackman, director of NCSL’s Health Program; Matthew Bobo, program manager with Alaska Immunization Program; Capt. Amanda Cohn, M.D., chief medical officer with the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases; and Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead with the Maryland National Guard discuss COVID vaccine hesitancy at NCSL Base Camp.

COVID-19: Vaccines and Public Policy

By Lisa Ryckman | Aug. 5, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

Pop-ups, partnerships and pivots have proved effective at getting the COVID-19 vaccine in arms in places as disparate as Alaska and Maryland, but overcoming shot reluctance promises to be an ongoing challenge, a federal health official told a session of NCSL Base Camp 2021 on Wednesday.

“We can’t ignore that there’s misinformation that’s driving some of this vaccine hesitancy,” said Dr. Amanda Cohn, chief medical officer of the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is incredibly unfortunate. It’s not going to change.”

We can’t ignore that there’s misinformation that’s driving some of this vaccine hesitancy.” —Dr. Amanda Cohn, chief medical officer of the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC

The answer?

“It really is meeting people where they are and trying to address their questions with sincerity and empathy and potentially needing lots of opportunities to do that,” she said. “So it’s offering someone the vaccine not just once but two or three weeks later and two or three weeks after that and still coming back around and not giving up on a community.”

CDC Assessment Tool

The CDC offers a rapid community assessment tool for health departments struggling to understand the underpinnings of hesitancy at a local level, in places such as college campuses or rural communities, Cohn said.

“It really highlights what the true barriers to those individuals are,” she said. “It can help you target communities where vaccine hesitancy may be particularly profound and difficult.”

NCSL Health Program Director Kate Blackman said there is concern that news of breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals might discourage others from getting a shot, despite clear evidence that the vaccination dramatically reduces the risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death from the highly transmissible delta variant.

Cohn said increases in hospitalizations in older vaccinated adults reflects an expected waning of immunity along with the fact that because so many of them—nearly 90%—have been vaccinated, it’s more likely that any cases cropping up will be in their ranks.

“It does create a really challenging communication problem,” she said.

Some older or immunocompromised people will most likely need a booster shot at some point, Cohn said, adding, “The only way we can protect these individuals is to get everyone around them vaccinated and to increase protection in these communities.”

The nation achieved President Joe Biden’s goal of 70% of adults having at least one COVID-19 shot this month, and vaccination rates in many places have ticked up in recent weeks. Records show about 660,000 shots administered per day, including 432,000 first doses, according to the CDC. That’s up about 24% from a week earlier.

“We believe what we’re seeing that people in these communities are realizing that COVID is not just a blip,” she said. “It is here for a while, and it is still causing very serious disease.”

Lisa Ryckman is an NCSL associated communications director.

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