The roll-out of the COVID vaccine, which started in the U.S. recently, brought hope to millions of Americans reeling under the protracted coronavirus pandemic. The phrase “this is the beginning of the end” was used repeatedly by interviewed vaccinated individuals and health care officials as well as in the news media to express a sigh of relief at the end of the pandemic being within sight. With over 300,000 dead, numerous communities ravaged, and an ongoing relentless transmission of infection, vaccination is indeed our only realistic chance of ending this scourge; the importance of our universal participation in this process of inoculation, thus, cannot be overemphasized.
Experts estimate that around 70 percent antibody positivity rate will be required, either via vaccination or infection, to achieve herd immunity against COVID. A hurdle to achieving herd immunity, however, is mistrust of the vaccine. A recent poll conducted by Associated Press found that only half of the surveyed Americans were willing to take the vaccine. The impact of COVID on African Americans has been severe and disproportionate, and yet in a recent Pew Research Survey, only 42 percent of Black Americans expressed willingness to take the vaccine when made publicly available. Efforts are being made to cull vaccine-related misinformation and increase public confidence. The CDC has made comprehensive vaccine-related information available on its website; social media companies are actively removing vaccine-related misinformation, and hospitals across the country have established helplines and information centers. Arguably, the most important players among these to influence public opinion will be social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where almost half of Americans get their news. The power of social media thus needs to be harnessed to maximize public participation. One way to increase vaccination rates would be to start a COVID vaccine analog of the famed ice-bucket challenge.
In the summer of 2014, social media feed turned rife with people pouring a bucket of ice water over themselves in an effort to spread awareness of the disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. The participants would then nominate others to complete the challenge or forfeit through a charitable donation. The ice-bucket challenge turned viral, and about $220 million was raised to fight the disease. The ice-bucket challenge’s success can be attributed to its “low participation barrier,” its “self-promoting mechanism” and peer pressure. A bucket, ice, water, and a camera were the only requirements thereby making it easy for millions to participate. The challenge turned self-promoting when participants nominated friends and family by calling out their names. It also exerted peer pressure by creating a divide between those who had taken part in the challenge and those who had not.
The COVID-19 vaccination drive is similar to the ice-bucket challenge in that the participation barrier is low. When the vaccine becomes available to the general public, a participating individual will merely need to sign up for the vaccine; the cost of which will be largely borne by the Federal Government. Health care workers are in the first tier of vaccine roll out and are already sharing their photos on social media; the peer pressure machinery is in motion.
Social media’s widespread popularity is largely attributable to our innate desire for recognition and our mentality to conform with the rest of the herd in our actions and beliefs. This awareness can be harnessed and used to our advantage with the aim of increasing COVID vaccination rates. Health care workers should continue to share their photos on their social media, encouraging people in their non-health care sphere to vaccinate themselves. Hospitals should actively promote vaccination by sharing videos discussing the facts and debunking myths related to the COVID vaccine. Similar content can be created by the city council, the county, and the state and shared on their respective social media pages. Celebrities and sportsmen can likewise participate by sharing their experiences with their followers. Corporations can choose to live stream the vaccination of their senior executives and CEOs. The involvement of politicians in the process will bring together people for different ideologies. Such posts should carry a common hashtag (#CovidVaccine) to ensure that the conversation continues to remain active on social media. A byproduct of such content sharing will be the creation of a herd of those who have received the vaccine and thus have completed the challenge and those who have not. The instinctual herd mentality will then ascertain that those eligible for vaccination in the coming months conform with the trend, join the challenge, and get inoculated.
Despite all these efforts, there will be those who refuse to or are unable to take the vaccine. Optimizing social media use to our advantage will help us in our endeavor to reach the 70 percent antibody positivity rate needed for herd immunity. For a change, sharing your personal data on Facebook and Twitter could do good for the entire nation. Whether you’re a nurse, a county official, or a CEO, we should all participate in the challenge this time.
Sumeet Dua is a radiologist.
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