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Art Of The Buzzkill: Health Officials Struggle To Boost Vaccination, Stall Parties

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

About 10% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated so far. And more vaccines, we are told, are on the way. That's good news that has us dreaming of the after times, right? We can again enjoy all the things we've missed.

JOHN CUMINS: My name is John Cumins (ph), and I'm newly vaccinated. Of all the things I missed because of COVID is the ability to travel. So now that I'm newly vaccinated, where am I going? Austin, Texas, for a barbecue tour.

JULIA: Hi, my name is Julia (ph), and I received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I am also eight weeks pregnant. I am looking forward to feeling assured and empowered that my decision to get vaccinated has the possibility to provide immunity to our child.

MARY: Hi, my name is Mary (ph), and I live in a suburb of Chicago. And when I get the vaccine, I can't wait to get back to work at the local emergency department at a hospital near me.

JOSH: Hi, my name is Josh (ph). And once I'm vaccinated, I can't wait to go to a Browns game again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But not so fast, say public health officials, who are telling people to remain cautious even after getting the vaccine. According to the CDC, vaccinated people should still wear a mask when around others, stay at least six feet away from others, avoid crowds and wash their hands often. Zeynep Tufekci is a sociologist and associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science, and she joins us now to talk about this new tricky phase in public health messaging.

Welcome to the program.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You tweeted this - quote, "The dominance of the don't take your masks off now, and vaccines won't change what you can do and we don't know if they can prevent transmissions articles and viral tweets is a crime against public health in the first month of the rollout when those points should be footnotes." Explain what you mean there. Why do you have a problem with this message?

TUFEKCI: So the problem with the message that - it's not wrong to tell people, you know, don't take your masks off for now. We still need to be careful. All those are really valid things. The problem is that that's all we kept hearing the first few weeks. I saw so many articles about don't do this, don't do this, don't do that, rather than articles that are emphasizing how great the vaccines are.

I was inundated with questions from my own social network. And when I started tweeting about this, I got so many stories of people who were despairing that this was never going to end because they thought the vaccines aren't going to change anything. And if anything, it was making them reluctant to keep up with all the restrictions that we're living under.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is your concern about the emphasis on the don't do this, don't do that about people's mental health, or is it a concern that it might actually discourage people from getting the vaccine? I mean, what exactly is the problem with sort of advising people that the vaccines are not 100% effective? - because, in fact, they're not.

TUFEKCI: Well, the problem was we were underselling them. We were not kind of explaining how good they are at preventing the things we really care about, like severe illness and death and hospitalization. We also had people, like, getting into the weeds of the variants and efficacy and this and that when, in fact, the trials were showing, still, even with the variants, amazing results for getting rid of the things we care about.

The second part I kept hearing from people was that younger people who were already in eligible groups, like people working in hospital settings - some of them were not getting the vaccine. And sometimes this was related to their feeling - well, I'm not sure this was tested enough was one concern. And nothing's going to change for me, so I'm just going to wait and see was another concern. And as the vaccination groups get bigger, which is going to happen very soon, we're really going to want everybody to get these amazing vaccines. And if you start the messaging on the wrong foot, it's very hard to recover afterwards.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've seen that. We've seen that. But I am curious who you fault here, if indeed blame is to be apportioned - clearly the media. But you know, these messages have also come from people like Dr. Fauci who have said that you have to wait. You have to, you know, be careful. If you get the vaccine, it's not like you can go out and, you know, start rumba-ing (ph) with all your friends again. So I'm wondering why you think it's been so hard to get the public messaging right throughout this entire pandemic, even now here when we're almost at the end.

TUFEKCI: Right. So I think - I don't want to put this all on Dr. Fauci because...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not just him. It's true.

TUFEKCI: And it's also - what he said isn't incorrect. The problem is the overall message because it's not like, you know, one person saying it. It's also the number of media articles you see on this and all the people...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I will confess I have shared these articles on social media.

TUFEKCI: We all do. But what the thing is - it's not - hasn't been balanced by a messaging environment that really celebrates how good they are. And the other thing, of course, everybody cares about - it's the No. 1 thing cited by people for wanting to get vaccinated - is to protect their family, to protect their community.

And what we haven't, I think, communicated properly is that they will reduce transmission. When we just say we don't know if they reduce transmission, that gets misheard. What we mean to say is that we're still studying it. That's a different message, right? Then you get into, OK, you know, you live your life with a tiny amount of risk all the time. So once it's tiny, we're going to change it. But we should tell people they're coming. It's going to change. It's going to be very different, first for vaccinated people and, as we get the numbers up, for all of us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zeynep Tufekci is a sociologist and associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science.

Thank you so much.

TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.