Local 'Trusted Messengers' Key To Boosting COVID Vaccinations, Surgeon General Says

May 5, 2021
Originally published on May 5, 2021 10:39 am

Updated May 5, 2021 at 10:25 AM ET

The pace of COVID-19 vaccinations is slowing down — not because of any vaccine shortage, but because some Americans don't want to get vaccinated.

President Biden addressed this on Tuesday, announcing a change to his national vaccination strategy that will include moving distribution away from mass vaccination sites to concentrate on more local areas. Biden says his goal is to get 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4th.

In an interview Wednesday with NPR's Morning Edition, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that while confidence in COVID-19 vaccines has risen, there's more work to do in convincing people, especially in rural communities, to get the shots. And working with "trusted messengers," including doctors and local faith leaders, will be key, he said.

"That's actually who people want to hear from — their own health care provider, their family and their friends," Murthy said.

Another important factor is providing reliable information about the vaccines, he said.

"Our goal is not to make people feel judged or to look down upon them in any way, but everyone should make sure they get their questions answered," Murthy said.

Following are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

On Biden's plan to distribute more vaccines through doctor's offices:

The progression that [the president] spoke of yesterday of going more local and making access even easier is part of a broader progression that's been taking place over the last few months. And this one will involve directing pharmacies, for example, to go from appointments only to offering walk-ins so that you can get vaccinated on your schedule instead of someone else's schedule. Directing FEMA to set up pop-up clinics and more mobile units to go to harder to reach places and communities. And making sure that we're shipping allocations of vaccine directly to rural health clinics, where access is not always easy to health care services more broadly.

On convincing people in rural areas to get vaccinated against COVID-19:

Overall, confidence rates in the vaccine have actually been improving since the end of last year. And we still have work to do. ... [We] have to work with trusted messengers. ... with local nurses and doctors, with teachers, with faith leaders and others in local communities ... that's actually who people want to hear from — their own health care provider, their family and their friends.

On doctors in rural communities who don't want to get vaccinated:

The good news here is that the vast majority of people in the country actually either are vaccinated or want to get vaccinated. So confidence is actually higher than one might think if you just look at the headlines. ... 90% of doctors have even gotten the vaccine or are trying to get it as soon as possible for themselves. I think that says something about where the confidence is in the medical profession in vaccines. And so we just have to keep that in mind and also recognize that, look, when people have questions about the vaccine, our goal is not to make people feel judged or to look down upon them in any way, but everyone should make sure they get their questions answered.

On the expectation that the Food and Drug Administration soon will authorize a vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds:

Well, it's a very important step because ultimately, if we want to reach broad levels of vaccination in our community, we've got to include children. That means adolescents and young children as well. And we'll see what the FDA does in terms of their decision to authorize the vaccine. But it will be a major step forward in helping us get kids vaccinated, because, remember, even though kids may be at a much lower risk of severe disease, they still can get COVID and transmit it to others. And that's why vaccinating them is so important.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The pace of COVID-19 vaccinations is slowing down in this country, not because of any vaccine shortage but because some Americans don't want to get vaccinated. President Biden addressed this yesterday. He announced a change to his national vaccination strategy, a change that will move distribution away from mass vaccination sites to concentrate on more local areas. Now, the president says his goal is to get 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4.

With me now, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States. Good morning, Dr. Murthy.

VIVEK MURTHY: Good morning, Noel. How are you?

KING: I'm very well, thank you. And thank you for being with us. I'd like to ask you about President Biden's plan to go local, we might put it, to distribute vaccine to doctor's offices, to pediatrician's offices, so people can get it in a place they trust. That sounds very sensible. Why hasn't it been done before?

MURTHY: Well, it's a great question, Noel. And just to recap, the new goal the president announced yesterday was to get at least one shot of the vaccine in to 70% of adults by July 4. What that amounts to effectively is administering another 100 million shots over the next 60 days. And the progression that he spoke of yesterday, of going more local and making access even easier, is part of a broader progression that's been taking place over the last few months.

And this one will involve directing pharmacies, for example, to go from appointments only to offering walk-ins so that you can get vaccinated on your schedule instead of someone else's schedule, directing FEMA to set up pop-up clinics and more mobile units to go in to harder to reach places and communities and making sure that we're shipping allocations of vaccine directly to rural health clinics, where access is not always easy, to health care services more broadly. And with this, along with additional funding that will be coming to communities to do engagement and outreach work, the hope is that we can continue to push on our vaccination campaign, get people information that they need and access to these lifesaving vaccines.

KING: Let's talk about rural communities because President Biden took care to talk directly about them yesterday. Let's listen to a bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We know that vaccination rates are lower in rural areas, and that's why we're going to get vaccines closer than ever to rural residents.

KING: OK, so that is a question of access, right? There is a bigger question of hesitancy and of people in rural areas being really reluctant to take this vaccine. We had a story on MORNING EDITION today from Oregon, people saying we just don't trust it. How do you incentivize folks in rural communities to get this vaccine when they say they just don't trust it?

MURTHY: Well, it's a good question, and it's one that we've been thinking about from the very beginning because we actually knew from data even last year that there were a number of people in the country who had questions about the vaccine. And so there are a couple of points to make here. One is that, overall, confidence rates in the vaccine have actually been improving since the end of last year. And we still have work to do, which is why what we have to do is not only get information out there through traditional sources and through the media, but we also have to work with trusted messengers. This is actually the heart of the information effort and the confidence campaign.

It's working with local nurses and doctors, with teachers, with faith leaders and others in local communities to make sure they have information that they can use to share with those around them in their neighborhoods and their communities. We know from, again, from good research that that's actually who people want to hear from, their own health care provider, their family and their friends. And that's one of the reasons why a few weeks ago we launched the COVID-19 Community Corps, to bring many of these trusted messengers together, empower them with tools and help them share that information with people so that they could make a decision for themselves about getting vaccinated.

KING: We've had reporting this week about both doctors and faith leaders in rural communities who themselves don't want to get vaccinated. And that is the message that they are spreading. It sounds to me like what you're saying, the hope is we can find enough faith leaders and enough medical professionals who do trust the vaccine to outweigh those who don't because this is a genuine problem.

MURTHY: Yes. And the good news, Noel, here is that the vast majority of people in the country actually either are vaccinated or want to get vaccinated. So confidence is actually higher than one might think, you know, if you just look at the headlines. But what the headlines do point out accurately is that we do need to focus increasingly on confidence. But if you look at doctors, for example, 90% of doctors have even gotten the vaccine or are trying to get it as soon as possible for themselves. I think that says something about where the confidence is in the medical profession in vaccines.

And so we just have to keep that in mind and also recognize that, look, when people have questions about the vaccine, our goal is not to make people feel judged or to look down upon them in any way. But everyone should make sure they get their questions answered. I mean, whenever you take a medicine, like, you know, you should have the right to get the right information. And it turns out many people's questions are about things like, you know, the research behind the vaccine. Was it solid? The answer is yes. It was put through rigorous clinical trials.

Some people are worried about side effects. And that's where it's helpful sometimes for them to know that while most people don't have side effects, some will have mild flu-like symptoms, like fever and body ache, for 24 to 48 hours. But that goes away and doesn't have any lasting effects. What you do end up having is protection that lasts for a long time from COVID. And that's really what we want. So we've got to make sure that people get that accurate information 'cause there's a lot of misinformation floating around.

KING: We expect the FDA to approve a vaccine for 12 to 15-year-olds soon. What do you think about that? How does that move us forward?

MURTHY: Well, it's a very important step, Noel, because ultimately if we want to reach broad levels of vaccination in our community, we've got to include children. That means adolescents and young children as well. And we'll see what the FDA does in terms of their decision to authorize the vaccine. But it will be a major step forward in helping us get kids vaccinated 'cause, remember, even though kids may not be at - as - they may be at much lower risk of severe disease, they still can get COVID and transmit it to others. And that's why vaccinating them is so important.

KING: Dr. Vivek Murthy is the surgeon general of the United States. Thank you for being with us. We appreciate it.

MURTHY: Well, thank you so much, Noel. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: