Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak. Their varying responses constitute an eerily prescient object lesson for today’s world, similarly devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.
As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see some parallels between then and now that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.
Smallpox strikes Boston
Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. Known to have affected people for at least 3,000 years, it ran rampant in Boston, eventually striking more than half the city’s population. The virus killed about 1 in 13 residents – but the death toll was probably more, since the lack of sophisticated epidemiology made it impossible to identify the cause of all deaths.
What was new, at least to Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from the disease. It was known as “variolation” or “inoculation,” and involved deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox “matter” from a victim’s scabs or pus, injecting the material into the skin using a needle. This approach typically caused a mild disease and induced a state of “immunity” against smallpox.
Even today, the exact mechanism is poorly understood and not much research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin seems to activate an immune response that leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly because of the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on activating the immune response with live smallpox variola virus, inoculation is different from the modern vaccination that eradicated smallpox using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.
The inoculation treatment, which originated in Asia and Africa, came to be known in Boston thanks to a man named Onesimus. By 1721, Onesimus was enslaved, owned by the most influential man in all of Boston, the Rev. Cotton Mather.
Known primarily as a Congregational minister, Mather was also a scientist with a special interest in biology. He paid attention when Onesimus told him “he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it; adding that it was often used” in West Africa, where he was from.
Inspired by this information from Onesimus, Mather teamed up with a Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to conduct a scientific study of inoculation’s effectiveness worthy of 21st-century praise. They found that of the approximately 300 people Boylston had inoculated, 2% had died, compared with almost 15% of those who contracted smallpox from nature.
The findings seemed clear: Inoculation could help in the fight against smallpox. Science won out in this clergyman’s mind. But others were not convinced.
Stirring up controversy
A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own affliction – namely an insatiable hunger for controversy. Franklin, who was no fan of Mather, set about attacking inoculation in his newspaper, The New-England Courant.
One article from August 1721 tried to guilt readers into resisting inoculation. If someone gets inoculated and then spreads the disease to someone else, who in turn dies of it, the article asked, “at whose hands shall their Blood be required?” The same article went on to say that “Epidemeal Distempers” such as smallpox come “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God.”
In contrast to Mather and Boylston’s research, the Courant’s articles were designed not to discover, but to sow doubt and distrust. The argument that inoculation might help to spread the disease posits something that was theoretically possible – at least if simple precautions were not taken – but it seems beside the point. If inoculation worked, wouldn’t it be worth this small risk, especially since widespread inoculations would dramatically decrease the likelihood that one person would infect another?
Franklin, the Courant’s editor, had a kid brother apprenticed to him at the time – a teenager by the name of Benjamin.
Historians don’t know which side the younger Franklin took in 1721 – or whether he took a side at all – but his subsequent approach to inoculation years later has lessons for the world’s current encounter with a deadly virus and a divided response to a vaccine.
You might expect that James’ little brother would have been inclined to oppose inoculation as well. After all, thinking like family members and others you identify with is a common human tendency.
That he was capable of overcoming this inclination shows Benjamin Franklin’s capacity for independent thought, an asset that would serve him well throughout his life as a writer, scientist and statesman. While sticking with social expectations confers certain advantages in certain settings, being able to shake off these norms when they are dangerous is also valuable. We believe the most successful people are the ones who, like Franklin, have the intellectual flexibility to choose between adherence and independence.
Truth, not victory
Perhaps the inoculation controversy of 1721 had helped him to understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continues to plague the U.S. in 2021: When people take sides, progress suffers. Tribes, whether long-standing or newly formed around an issue, can devote their energies to demonizing the other side and rallying their own. Instead of attacking the problem, they attack each other.
Franklin, in fact, became convinced that inoculation was a sound approach to preventing smallpox. Years later he intended to have his son Francis inoculated after recovering from a case of diarrhea. But before inoculation took place, the 4-year-old boy contracted smallpox and died in 1736. Citing a rumor that Francis had died because of inoculation and noting that such a rumor might deter parents from exposing their children to this procedure, Franklin made a point of setting the record straight, explaining that the child had “receiv’d the Distemper in the common Way of Infection.”
Writing his autobiography in 1771, Franklin reflected on the tragedy and used it to advocate for inoculation. He explained that he “regretted bitterly and still regret” not inoculating the boy, adding, “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”
A scientific perspective
A final lesson from 1721 has to do with the importance of a truly scientific perspective, one that embraces science, facts and objectivity.
Inoculation was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians in 1721, and this lifesaving method was not without deadly risks. To address this paradox, several physicians meticulously collected data and compared the number of those who died because of natural smallpox with deaths after smallpox inoculation. Boylston essentially carried out what today’s researchers would call a clinical study on the efficacy of inoculation. Knowing he needed to demonstrate the usefulness of inoculation in a diverse population, he reported in a short book how he inoculated nearly 300 individuals and carefully noted their symptoms and conditions over days and weeks.
The recent emergency-use authorization of mRNA-based and viral-vector vaccines for COVID-19 has produced a vast array of hoaxes, false claims and conspiracy theories, especially in various social media. Like 18th-century inoculations, these vaccines represent new scientific approaches to vaccination, but ones that are based on decades of scientific research and clinical studies.
We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would want his example to guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists and everyone else making personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist with a respect for evidence and ultimately for truth.
When it comes to a deadly virus and a divided response to a preventive treatment, Franklin was clear what he would do. It doesn’t take a visionary like Franklin to accept the evidence of medical science today.
An argument for humility in the face of pandemic forecasting unknown unknowns.
“Are we battling an unprecedented pandemic or panicking at a computer generated mirage?” I asked at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 18, 2020. Back then the Imperial College London epidemiological model’s baseline scenario projected that with no changes in individual behaviors and no public health interventions, more than 80 percent of Americans would eventually be infected with novel coronavirus and about 2.2 million would die of the disease. This implies that 0.8 percent of those infected would die of the disease. This is about 8-times worse than the mortality rate from seasonal flu outbreaks.
Spooked by these dire projections, President Donald Trump issued on March 16 his Coronavirus Guidelines for America that urged Americans to “listen to and follow the directions of STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES.” Among other things, Trump’s guidelines pressed people to “work or engage in schooling FROM HOME whenever possible” and “AVOID SOCIAL GATHERINGS in groups of more than 10 people.” The guidelines exhorted Americans to “AVOID DISCRETIONARY TRAVEL, shopping trips and social visits,” and that “in states with evidence of community transmission, bars, restaurants, food courts, gyms, and other indoor and outdoor venues where people congregate should be closed.”
Let’s take a moment to recognize just how blindly through the early stages of the pandemic we—definitely including our public health officials—were all flying at the time. The guidelines advised people to frequently wash their hands, disinfect surfaces, and avoid touching their faces. Basically, these were the sort of precautions typically recommended for influenza outbreaks. On July 9, 2020, an open letter from 239 researchers begged the World Health Organization and other public health authorities to recognize that COVID-19 was chiefly spread by airborne transmission rather than via droplets deposited on surfaces. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t update its guidance on COVID-19 airborne transmission until May 2021. And it turns out that touching surfaces is not a major mode of transmission for COVID-19.
The president’s guidelines also advised, “IF YOU FEEL SICK, stay home. Do not go to work.” This sensible advice, however, missed the fact that a huge proportion of COVID-19 viral transmission occurred from people without symptoms. That is, people who feel fine can still be infected and, unsuspectingly, pass along their virus to others. For example, one January 2021 study estimated that “59% of all transmission came from asymptomatic transmission, comprising 35% from presymptomatic individuals and 24% from individuals who never develop symptoms.”
The Imperial College London’s alarming projections did not go uncontested. A group of researchers led by Stanford University medical professor Jay Bhattacharya believed that COVID-19 infections were much more widespread than the reported cases indicated. If the Imperial College London’s hypothesis were true, Bhattacharya and his fellow researchers argued, that would mean that the mortality rate and projected deaths from the coronavirus would be much lower, making the pandemic much less menacing.
The researchers’ strategy was to blood test people in Santa Clara and Los Angeles Counties in California to see how many had already developed antibodies in response to coronavirus infections. Using those data, they then extrapolated what proportion of county residents had already been exposed to and recovered from the virus.
Bhattacharya and his colleagues preliminarily estimated that between 48,000 and 81,000 people had already been infected in Santa Clara County by early April, which would mean that COVID-19 infections were “50-85-fold more than the number of confirmed cases.” Based on these data the researchers calculated that toward the end of April “a hundred deaths out of 48,000-81,000 infections corresponds to an infection fatality rate of 0.12-0.2%.” As I optimistically reported at the time, that would imply that COVID-19’s lethality was not much different than for seasonal influenza.
Bhattacharya and his colleagues conducted a similar antibody survey in Los Angeles County. That study similarly asserted that COVID-19 infections were much more widespread than reported cases. The study estimated 2.8 to 5.6 percent of the residents of Los Angeles County had been infected by early April. That translates to approximately 221,000 to 442,000 adults in the county who have had the infection. “That estimate is 28 to 55 times higher than the 7,994 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported to the county by the time of the study in early April,” noted the accompanying press release. “The number of COVID-related deaths in the county has now surpassed 600.” These estimates would imply a relatively low infection fatality rate of between 0.14 and 0.27 percent.
Unfortunately, from the vantage of 14 months, those hopeful results have not been borne out. Santa Clara County public health officials report that there have been 119,712 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 so far. If infections were really being underreported by 50-fold, that would suggest that roughly 6 million Santa Clara residents would by now have been infected by the coronavirus. The population of the county is just under 2 million. Alternatively, extrapolating a 50-fold undercount would imply that when 40,000 diagnosed cases were reported on July 11, 2020, all 2 million people living in Santa Clara County had been infected by that date.
Los Angeles County reports 1,247,742 diagnosed COVID-19 cases cumulatively. Again, if infections were really being underreported 28-fold, that would imply that roughly 35 million Angelenos out of a population of just over 10 million would have been infected with the virus by now. Again turning the 28-fold estimate on its head, that would imply that all 10 million Angelenos would have been infected when 360,000 cases had been diagnosed on November 21, 2020.
COVID-19 cases are, of course, being undercounted. Data scientist Youyang Gu has been consistently more accurate than many of the other researchers parsing COVID-19 pandemic trends. Gu estimates that over the course of the pandemic, U.S. COVID-19 infections have roughly been 4-fold greater than diagnosed cases. Applying that factor to the number of reported COVID-19 cases would yield an estimate of 480,000 and 5,000,000 total infections in Santa Clara and Los Angeles respectively. If those are ballpark accurate, that would mean that the COVID-19 infection fatality rate in Santa Clara is 0.46 percent and is 0.49 percent in Los Angeles. Again, applying a 4-fold multiplier to take account of undercounted infections, those are both just about where the U.S. infection fatality rate of 0.45 percent is now.
The upshot is that, so far, we have ended up about half-way between the best case and worst case scenarios sketched out at the beginning of the pandemic.
The Biden administration is working to stamp out misinformation that might dissuade people from getting coronavirus shots, a crucial task as the nation shifts into the next, more difficult phase of its vaccination campaign.
The White House announced Friday that 100 million Americans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but the nationwide rollout is plateauing as fewer people sign up for shots.
Administration officials and health experts know the difficulty ahead in getting vaccines into as many people as possible, and are trying to eliminate the barriers to doing so.
Authorities need to dispel the legitimate concerns that make people hesitant, while also stopping waves of misinformation.
This past week, top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci corrected Joe Rogan, a popular podcast host who himself later acknowledged his lack of medical knowledge, after Rogan said young healthy people don’t need to be vaccinated.
“You’re talking about yourself in a vacuum,” Fauci said of the podcast host. “You’re worried about yourself getting infected and the likelihood that you’re not going to get any symptoms. But you can get infected, and will get infected, if you put yourself at risk.”
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield also joined in the criticism.
“Did Joe Rogan become a medical doctor while we weren’t looking? I’m not sure that taking scientific and medical advice from Joe Rogan is perhaps the most productive way for people to get their information,” she told CNN.
Rogan’s comments were trending on Twitter for two days before he attempted to walk them back.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m a f—ing moron, and I’m a cage fighting commentator … I’m not a respected source of information, even for me,” he said.
Public health experts said Rogan’s comments were irresponsible, and potentially dangerous because they could perpetuate hesitancy.
“You have a responsibility as an adult, you have a responsibility as a community leader, your responsibility as a communicator to get it right,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
While Rogan is not a political figure, he has one of the most popular podcasts in the world, and an enormous platform.
Rogan hosts the most popular podcast on Spotify. Rogan said in 2019 that his podcast was being downloaded 190 million times per month.
People are not getting all their information from Rogan, but when his comments clash with what public health experts say, that is problematic.
“It’s not so much that Joe Rogan’s a comedian, he’s very popular with people sort of leaning on the conservative side, especially young people. And that’s the group that we have to reach, especially young men,” said Peter Hotez, a leading coronavirus vaccinologist and dean of Baylor University’s National School of Tropical Medicine.
Hotez, who has appeared on Rogan’s show in the past, said he thinks the host was just misinformed. Hotez said he has reached out, and wants to help Rogan have a more productive discussion about why it’s so important for everyone to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Polls show vaccine hesitancy is declining, but the holdouts are not monolithic, and experts believe trusted messengers will be needed.
“I just think they have to speak the facts. You speak the facts, and anytime you discover the facts that are incorrect, you try to correct them,” said Benjamin. “And … I don’t think you demonize the individual, nor do I think you try to pin motive to it, because you don’t know what the motive is.”
Some people are most worried about side effects, some are concerned about the safety of the vaccines and some people don’t think COVID-19 is a problem at all. There are also likely some people who will never be convinced, and try to sow confusion and distrust.
Biden administration officials are aware of the harmful impact of misinformation, but know they are walking a fine line between people who legitimately want more information and those who just want chaos.
“We know that people have questions for multiple reasons. Sometimes because there’s misinformation that they’ve encountered, sometimes because they’ve had a bad experience with the healthcare system and they’re wondering who to trust, and some people have just heard lots of different news as we continue to get updates on the vaccine, and they want to hear from someone they trust,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said during a White House briefing.
For the White House, using medical experts like Fauci to correct obvious misinformation is part of the strategy to boost vaccine confidence.
“Our approach is to provide, and flood the zone with accurate information,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. “Obviously that includes combating misinformation when it comes across.”
The administration has also invested $3 billion to support local health department programs and community-based organizations intended to increase vaccine access, acceptance and uptake.
Still, experts said different messengers are needed, especially when trying to reach conservatives who may now view Fauci as a polarizing political figure.
“There needs to be a better organized effort by the administration to really understand how to reach groups that are identified in polls as saying they won’t get vaccinated,” Hotez said. “We need to figure out how to do the right kind of outreach with the conservative groups, and we’ve got to do something about” the damage caused by members of the conservative media.
In a recent CBS-YouGov poll, 30 percent of Republicans said they would not get the vaccine and another 19 percent said they only “maybe” would do so.
The underlying mistrust comes after a year in which Trump and his allies played down the severity of a virus that has killed more than half a million Americans already.
A national poll and focus group conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz showed Republicans who voted for President Trump will be far more influenced by their doctors and family members than any politician.
To that end, a group of Republican lawmakers who are also physicians released a video urging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The video, led by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), features some of the lawmakers wearing white coats with stethoscopes around their necks speaking into the camera.
The American public’s attitude toward COVID-19 vaccination has evolved rapidly since the end of last year. The share of adults who report they have either already been vaccinated or intend to get the vaccine as soon as possible continues to rise (currently about 62 percent), while the share who say they will “wait and see” continues to shrink (now 17 percent). Importantly, however, the share who say they will either “definitely not” get vaccinated or only do so “if required” (currently 20 percent) has remained stubbornly consistent since December.
As the US reaches a vaccine tipping point, with more COVID vaccines available than people willing to be vaccinated, it will be important to understand this vaccine-hesitant population more clearly. A recent consumer segmentation analysis found that this group falls into four major behavioral profiles, shown on the right side of the graphic above.
The next phase of vaccine rollout must specifically address the key concerns of individuals in each of these different segments. For example, the “watchful” group, the easiest to persuade, will likely respond to a more transparent vaccination process and the amplification of positive vaccination testimonials. On the other hand, “system distrusters,” generally comprised of younger, lower-income minorities, would benefit most from hearing community leaders discuss vaccine safety. Unfortunately, the largest segment of vaccine-hesitant Americans, the “misinformation believers”, will also be the most difficult to turn. These individuals are more likely to hold rigid, politically driven beliefs.
While countering misinformation by leveraging trusted influencers may help convince some, this group may be the hardest to persuade—although their participation will be crucial to hitting any goal of “herd immunity” by this fall.
In 2018, a short video circulated on WhatsApp claiming that the MMR vaccine was designed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop the population growth of Muslims. Subsequently, hundreds of madrassas across western Uttar Pradesh refused to allow health departments to vaccinate their constituents.
In 2020, a three-minute video claiming that the coronavirus vaccination campaign was secretly a plan by Bill Gates to implant trackable microchips in people was one of the most widely shared pieces of misinformation online. Alongside a torrent of online COVID-19 vaccine falsehoods and conspiracy theories, sources of medical mis- and disinformation are fostering distrust in COVID-19 vaccines, undermining immunization efforts, and demonstrating how poor information is a determinant of health.
Medical misinformation, referring to inaccurate or unverified information that can drive misperceptions about medical practices or treatments, has flooded the infosphere (all types of information available online). Examples can vary from overrepresentations of anecdotes claiming that complications occurred following inoculation to misinterpretations of research findings by well-meaning individuals.
Considering the many ways in which medical misinformation can shape health behaviors, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute recently suggested that the infosphere should be classified as a social determinant of health (SDOH) (designated alongside general socioeconomic, environmental, and cultural conditions). This classification, they argue, properly accounts for the correlation between exposure to poor quality information and poor health outcomes.
The connection between information quality and health has been especially pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2021 study found that amongst those who indicated that they would definitely take a COVID-19 vaccine, exposure to misinformation induced a decline in intent of 6.2% in the U.K. and 6.4% in the U.S. Further, misinformation that appeared to be science-based was found to be especially damaging to vaccination intentions. These findings are particularly concerning considering the fact that during the pandemic, the 147 biggest anti-vaccine accounts on social media (which often purport to be science-based) gained 7.8 million followers in the first half of 2020, an increase of 19%.
During an unprecedented health crisis, medical misinformation within the infosphere is leaving both individuals and communities vulnerable to poor health outcomes. Those who are unvaccinated are at a higher risk of infection and increase the likelihood of community transmission. This places undue burden on those who cannot get vaccinated—due to inequities and/or preexisting conditions—and increases opportunities for variants to continue to mutate into more infectious and/or deadly forms of the virus. Poor quality information within the infosphere is undermining immunization efforts and threatens to prolong the ark of the pandemic.
Leveraging Healthcare Provider Influence in the Battle Against Poor Quality Information
Healthcare providers are uniquely suited to respond to this challenge. Throughout the pandemic, majorities of U.S. adults have identified their doctors and nurses as the most trustworthy sources of information about the coronavirus. In fact, 8 in 10 U.S. adults said that they are very or somewhat likely to turn to a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare provider when deciding whether or not to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
This influence is especially pertinent considering the state of vaccine resistance across the globe. In March 2021, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 37% of U.S. respondents indicated some degree of resistance to vaccination. If that percentage of Americans remain unvaccinated, the country will be short of what is needed to achieve herd immunity (likely 70% or more vaccinated). Similar levels of resistance to vaccination remain high in countries across the globe, such as Lebanon, Serbia, Paraguay, and France.
Although medical misinformation is contributing to high rates of refusal, it is important to note that drivers of vaccine resistance are complex and intersectional. Vaccine distrust or refusal may be rooted in exposure to anti-vaccine rhetoric, racial injustice or medical exploitation in healthcare, fears that vaccine development was rushed, and/or other drivers. For this reason, responses must be tailored to unique individual or communal motivations. For example, experts have pressed the critical need for vaccine distrust within Black communities to be approached not as a shortcoming of community members, but as a failure of health systems to prove themselves as trustworthy.
With regard to resistance rooted in anti-COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, healthcare providers are leveraging their unique influence through novel, grassroots approaches to encourage vaccine uptake. In North Dakota, providers are recording videos and sending out messages to their patients communicating that they have been vaccinated and explaining why it is safe to do the same. On social media, a network of female doctors and scientists across various social media pages, such as Dear Pandemic (82,000 followers) and Your Local Epidemiologist (181,000 followers), are collaborating to answer medical questions, clear up misperceptions about COVID-19 vaccines, and provide communities with accurate information about the virus. Similarly, the #BetweenUsAboutUs online campaign is elevating conversations about vaccines with Black doctors, nurses, and researchers in an effort to increase vaccine confidence in BIPOC communities. This campaign is especially critical considering the fact that BIPOC communities are often the target of anti-vaccine groups in an effort to exploit existing, rational distrust in health systems.
In addition to these timely responses, evidence-based interventions offer promising opportunities for healthcare providers to improve vaccine uptake amongst their patients. For example, there is a growing consensus around the practice of motivational interviewing (MI).
MI is a set of patient-centered communication techniques that aim to enhance a patient’s intrinsic motivation to change health behaviors by tapping into their own arguments for change. The approach is based on empathetic, nonjudgmental patient-provider dialogue. In other words, as opposed to simply telling a patient why they should get vaccinated, a provider will include the patient in a problem-solving process that accounts for their unique motivations and helps them discover their own reasons for getting vaccinated.
When applying MI techniques to a conversation with a patient who is unsure if they should receive a vaccine, providers will use an “evoke-provide-evoke” approach where they will ask patients: 1) what they already know about the vaccine; 2) if the patient would like additional information about the vaccine (if yes, then provide the most up to date information); and 3) how the new information changes how they are thinking or feeling about vaccination. During these conversations, the MI framework encourages providers to ask open-ended questions, practice reflective listening, offer affirmations, elicit pros and cons of change, and summarize conversations, amongst other tools.
Numerous studies show motivational interviewing to be effective in increasing vaccine uptake. For example, one randomized controlled trial found that with parents in maternity wards, vaccine hesitancy fell by 40% after participation in an educational intervention based on MI. Given its demonstrated effectiveness, MI is likely to help reduce vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With infectious disease outbreaks becoming more likely and resistance to various vaccines increasing across the globe, continuing to leverage healthcare providers’ unique influence through grassroots campaigns while honing motivational interviewing skills as a way to combat mis- and disinformation in the infosphere may prove critical to advancing public health now and in the future.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky finds herself in a delicate position as she seeks to balance the optimism of increasing vaccinations with the reality that the U.S. is still very much in the grip of a deadly pandemic.
Walensky started the CDC job with a reputation as a savvy communicator, tasked with salvaging the reputation of an agency that took a beating under the Trump administration.
“When I first started at CDC about two months ago, I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth, even if it was not the news we wanted to hear,” Walensky told reporters recently.
Walensky’s expertise is in HIV research, like her predecessor Robert Redfield, and before being appointed to lead the CDC, she was head of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.
While former colleagues say Walensky is the perfect fit for the CDC post, her skills are now being put to the test as she faces criticism for being both too negative and too hopeful.
“She is quite a compelling and clear communicator, but it’s a challenging set of messages to try and get out there,” said Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Public health messaging during a global pandemic is complicated enough, but experts say this particular moment is especially difficult.
After weeks of decline and then stagnation, the rate of coronavirus infections has once again started to climb across much of the country. Cases are up about 12 percent nationally compared with the previous week, averaging around 62,000 cases per day, according to the CDC.
At the same time, nearly 100 million Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Many states are expanding vaccine eligibility, in some instances to all adults, and federal health officials say there will be enough supply for everyone to be vaccinated by the end of May.
Walensky tried to emphasize both aspects this week when she issued an emotional appeal to the public.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope. But right now I’m scared,” Walensky said, adding that she had a “sense of impending doom” if people continued to ignore public health precautions.
Yet almost in the next breath, she talked about a “tremendously encouraging” new study showing that vaccinated people were 90 percent protected from infection, meaning they pose an extremely low risk of spreading the virus.
While that may come across as mixed messaging, experts say it accurately reflects not only where things stand right now but also how the country has been reacting to the virus for the past year.
“Whiplash is a true reflection of how we’re all experiencing the epidemic and the response to it. So I’d rather she be honest about that and others be honest about that than give people something that they want … to make them feel better,” said Judith Auerbach, a professor in the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
Auerbach, who previously worked with Walensky on HIV research, praised the director’s openness, which she said had been missing from agency leadership during the Trump administration.
“She’s being really honest about her own emotions. That’s hard for a fed to do and get away with,” Auerbach said. “The science that says we all still need to be, in fact, quite scared because we’re in this race between the vaccines … versus the emergence of these variants, and she felt it at a visceral level, and she conveyed that in a way that I thought was quite telling.”
Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and a former CDC media relations director, said Walensky’s candor helps establish credibility.
“She has embraced the fact that credibility comes from being transparent and honest and genuine about your fears and your concerns,” Nowak said.
The CDC declined to make Walensky available for an interview, but in a statement to The Hill, an agency spokesman said every communication reflects the latest science and epidemiology.
“At times, moments must balance hope that we will move out of the pandemic with the reality that we are not out of it yet,” the spokesman said.
“We acknowledge the challenge of conveying such hope and promise that vaccines offer with the reality that cases and deaths are rising. While we are sending the critical message that people cannot and should not let up on their prevention measures, we do remain very optimistic about what the future of a fully vaccinated public will offer,” the spokesman added.
On Friday, Walensky again came under criticism for her messaging. In updated guidance, the CDC said it is safe for people who have been fully vaccinated to travel.
But Walensky struck a cautionary tone by saying the CDC still recommends anyone, vaccinated or not, avoid nonessential travel because infection numbers are so high.
“We know that right now we have a surging number of cases,” Walensky said during a White House briefing. “I would advocate against general travel overall. Our guidance is silent on recommending or not recommending fully vaccinated people travel. Our guidance speaks to the safety of doing so.”
Nowak said part of what makes public health messaging so difficult is the fact that science doesn’t always deal in absolutes and that the public overall doesn’t do well with nuance.
“Often people don’t want to listen to the nuance; they want advice and guidance to be stable. They get frustrated with the changes or when it seems to be contradictory. They also get frustrated if it doesn’t match their everyday living experiences,” Nowak said.
With the travel guidance, Walensky attempted to spell out the balance she was trying to strike and asked the public for patience and understanding.
“I want to acknowledge today that providing guidance in the midst of a changing pandemic and its changing science is complex,” Walensky said.
“The science shows us that getting fully vaccinated allows you to do more things safely, and it’s important for us to provide that guidance, even in the context of rising cases. At the same time, we must balance the science with the fact that most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated, which is likely contributing to our rising cases,” she said.
Jen Kates, director for global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has known Walensky for decades, said she thinks the CDC director is aware that she can’t escape criticism, especially when so many people have pandemic fatigue.
If the CDC is too strict and refuses to endorse relatively normal behavior, especially after people get vaccinated, it could risk others refusing to get the shot, Kates said.
But if the agency paints too rosy a picture, more people could act like the pandemic is over and risk further spread of the virus.
“It behooves public officials to always be cognizant that their words are being listened to and can be taken out of context or may be hard for people to grasp,” Kates said. “So I think Dr. Walensky is a great communicator, but that doesn’t mean that this is always easy to do and the balance is always straightforward.”
Top public health experts and officials are developing new strategies to reach out to the conservatives most skeptical of or hesitant about receiving a coronavirus vaccine.
The efforts are targeting supporters of former President Trump, who have emerged as the most significant hurdle to widespread vaccination.
The officials and experts are making appearances on Fox News and Newsmax and taking part on panels with prominent conservative politicians to reach out to vaccine skeptics on the right.
And the public health experts are not taking an antagonistic approach either. They say many conservatives have legitimate questions about COVID-19 vaccinations that are worth listening to and answering.
“These are folks who really feel disrespected. They feel that COVID and the vaccines and the response has been politicized and weaponized, in their words,” said Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Obama. “They feel deeply alienated from the government.”
Up to now, the main problem with increasing vaccinations has been one of supply and demand, but administration officials expect that to change shortly.
“We are approaching the point where we will have a sufficient supply of vaccines for everybody in the United States to have the chance to get immunized by the end of May,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said in an interview with The Hill on Wednesday.
At that point, convincing skeptical conservatives to get a shot could mean the difference between the U.S. achieving herd immunity and resuming normal life or variants of COVID-19 getting second and third winds, leading to new lockdowns or restrictions on life.
As Collins puts it, “the hesitancy will begin to become the defining factor on whether we reach herd immunity or not.”
“I think that means this has to be the moment where we really pull into this conversation all of the trustworthy voices,” he added.
A recent CBS poll found a third of Republicans said they would not be vaccinated, compared to 10 percent of Democrats. A “PBS NewsHour” poll showed similar results: Nearly half of U.S. men who identify as Republicans said they have no plans to get vaccinated.
The underlying mistrust comes after a year in which Trump and his allies played down the severity of a virus that has killed more than half a million Americans already.
Circumstances have conspired to allow that skepticism to grow: The coronavirus arrived later in more rural, conservative enclaves than it did in liberal metropolitan areas like Seattle, New York and Detroit, giving some the sense that they had been locked out of the economy to protect against a virus that was not yet present in their community.
Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who advised the Biden transition team on COVID-19 issues, said she has been surprised to see how political vaccine hesitancy has become.
In the past, Morita said, public health officials have focused on race and ethnicity. “We didn’t really look at politics or political affiliation,” she said.
Morita said her message remains the same, but that she has had to focus on where to deliver it. She recently co-wrote a Fox News op-ed answering some of the common questions about the available COVID-19 vaccines and urging people to get the shots when they’re available.
“Whether you’re a community of color, or whether you’re a conservative, these are the questions that people ask and want to have the answers to before they get vaccinated,” Morita said. “I don’t feel like that’s a shifted message as much as maybe we’re just able to get it into a more conservative news outlet.”
Convincing a group of people who did not vote for the president presents a challenge to a Democratic administration. So President Biden has been outsourcing the message.
Appearing on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show this week, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he doesn’t shy away from conservative outlets that may not be friendly.
“I say yes to a wide variety of requests. I’ve been on Fox multiple times, so I don’t shy away from that, no,” Fauci said.
Health officials are increasingly convinced that successful messaging is not going to come from politicians or government officials but from doctors, clergy and trusted community leaders.
Last month, Frieden participated in focus groups with vaccine-hesitant Republican voters led by veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz.
The groups, first reported by The Washington Post, showed vaccine-hesitant conservatives were not swayed by Republican politicians like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — or even by Trump himself.
Instead, Frieden said, the message that moved the hesitant to the accepting hit closer to home: Their doctors took the vaccine when it was offered.
“You listen to the audience, you understand where they are and you address their concerns. And that’s the same thing we have to do for Trump voters who are reluctant to get vaccinated or African Americans or Latinx or vegans who don’t want to get vaccinated,” Frieden said.
Morita said she thinks the same efforts and resources that go into convincing communities of color should also be directed at conservatives.
“High-level government officials espousing the importance of vaccines and sharing their experiences with it is really important but it’s not sufficient,” Morita said.
Support for Trump and a distrust of the government is not the only reason conservatives might be reluctant to accept the vaccine. Many are concerned about how quickly the vaccines were developed.
Still others object on religious grounds, which is where Collins, the NIH director, comes in.
A devout Christian who is open about his faith, Collins has become an ambassador to the faith community. He spends hours a day talking to faith leaders, assuring them of the vaccine’s soundness and science.
Collins told The Hill he frames the decision to get vaccinated in religious terms.
“Is this a love your neighbor moment? Yes, it is,” Collins said. “And whatever faith you are, the Golden Rule seems to apply, and the Golden Rule would say, for your neighbor or for your family, for your neighbors down the street who may be vulnerable, this is something you can do for them.”