The White House is poised to launch a sweeping new campaign to reduce vaccine hesitancy as the Biden administration barrels ahead with plans to give every American access to Covid shots by May 1, according to three senior officials familiar with the matter.
The campaign, coordinated across the federal government’s health agencies, will focus on reaching Americans who are skeptical of signing up for a shot, or who do not know where to get it, and aims to combat misinformation about the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, sources said.
The rollout comes days after every living former president and first lady — with the exception of Donald and Melania Trump — appeared in a public service announcement urging Americans to get vaccinated.
The high-profile spot marked the kickoff of a large, more concerted effort to drive people to vaccination sites, and comes as the Biden administration continues to ramp up vaccine supply and rapidly expand the eligibility pool. The administration last week pledged $8 billion to states to help with vaccine administration and plans to double the amount of federal vaccine sites across the country with the deployment of an additional 4,000 troops. Plans for the latest campaign were first reported by STAT.
Health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical officer, have for months raised concerns over the possibility that large swaths of the country would not sign up for the vaccine. Federal officials became alarmed in December after reports surfaced that frontline health care workers had refused the shot — and grew in the first few weeks of the vaccine rollout once it became clear that subsets of the population were not signing up.
The new vaccine confidence drive, which will draw on funds from Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, underscores the extent to which the administration is still concerned about Americans’ desire to get vaccinated in the months ahead — a factor that could hinder future reopening plans. Biden officials involved in orchestrating the campaign have focused intently on the timing of the push, amid worries that launching it too early might end up frustrating those who found they wouldn’t be able to get a shot for months.
Large numbers of people in priority groups are still unable to secure appointments to get vaccinated, and state efforts to speed the effort have been hampered by error-prone sign-up software and logistical hurdles.
The CDC has already begun rolling out portions of the new vaccine confidence playbook. According to an internal briefing obtained by POLITICO, the CDC Vaccine Task Force has begun to hold “vaccine confidence consultations” with interested jurisdictions. The consultations include briefings between CDC officials and local leaders about how states can build trust in their communities and ensure the maximum number of residents sign up for the shot.
In addition, the CDC recently published the “COVID-19 Vaccine Confidence Rapid Community Assessment Guide” to help state and local health departments better understand what is driving vaccine confidence in communities. The documents outline “steps to identify communities of focus and understand the drivers of confidence, & then develop intervention strategies to increase confidence,” the internal briefing said.
Trump administration officials attempted to launch a similar $250 million “defeat despair” public relations effort aimed at reopening the country last year before those funds were put on hold pending a probe by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Democrats were concerned over a particular contract and then-HHS Communications Director Michael Caputo’s oversight of the plan. That effort envisioned recruiting celebrities to promote the campaign.
The original $250 million contract was awarded to Fors Marsh Group, a small market-research firm in Arlington, Va. In November, HHS moved forward with the campaign but ditched a separate $15 million celebrity campaign. Fors Marsh is still involved with the administration’s vaccine confidence work and has been working closely with HHS and the CDC since the election.
Behind the scenes, senior administration officials, including those working with the White House Covid-19 task force, have for weeks discussed ways to ensure the country’s demand for the vaccine continues to meet its growing supply. Some of those conversations have focused on the need to push out advertisements — particularly on social media — pushing Americans to sign up for shots.
The Ad Council, a non-profit organization that often partners with the federal government on public service announcements, has worked with the CDC and HHS over the past several months to push out advertisements to educate Americans about the vaccine and to reduce overall hesitancy. Some of those ads have appeared on Twitter under the HHS.gov account.
The federal government also worked with the Ad Council and another outside group, the COVID Collaborative, on the “It’s Up to You” presidential PSA for months ahead of its release, Covid Collaborative co-founder John Bridgeland said, including shooting much of the footage on Inauguration Day. The project was so secret that those involved had to sign nondisclosure agreements, he added.
The CDC and HHS have been working behind the scenes since December on the vaccine confidence campaign rollout. According to another internal HHS briefing document dated Dec. 29, 2020, the CDC’s campaign, titled, “Vaccinate with Confidence” aims to “share clear, complete, and accurate messages about COVID-19 vaccines,” “promote confidence among healthcare personnel in their decision to get vaccinated” and “engage communities in a sustainable, equitable and inclusive way.”
Part of the campaign will lean on the existing partnership with the Ad Council. The Dec. 29 document said community organizations are pushing out two sites, GetVaccineAnswers.org and DeTiDepende.org, to individuals in their area as a way to educate them about the vaccine’s benefits and the process of receiving the shot.
Bridgeland, a former George W. Bush administration domestic policy chief, said promoting the vaccination effort now, rather than waiting until everyone is eligible for a vaccine, is based on research that showed high demand already for information on the shots.
“We found the vast majority of Americans wanted education, information, answers to their questions now — even if the vaccine wasn’t available now,” he said, adding that the Ad Council and Covid Collaborative have closely coordinated its messaging with the CDC.
The Covid Collaborative is also helping with the production of PSAs featuring faith-based leaders and others viewed as trustworthy community messengers, Bridgeland said, though he declined to offer specifics or outline the timing.
Bridgeland voiced concerns about polls showing significant vaccine hesitancy among conservatives, adding that his organization has sought to find “conservative influencers” willing to promote the vaccine.
“We have to make sure this transcends politics,” he said. “It can’t be the mask game again. Vaccines are not political.”
One of the organization’s earliest ads featured former New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who survived a bout with Covid-19.
Bridgeland also said he was “thrilled” to learn that Trump had received the vaccine before leaving office, but hoped he would do more to encourage his supporters to get their own shots.