Persuading parents to vaccinate their kids or teenagers against Covid-19 will be harder than convincing them to get shots themselves, public health communication researchers warn.
Parents tend to focus more on their individual child’s risk levels and health rather than the societal good that might have pushed them to take the vaccine, said Emily Brunson. She’s an associate professor at Texas State University who studies health-care access and decision-making.
“It’s not what’s better for the community, it’s what is better for the child, and I expect the younger the child the more prevalent that sentiment will be,” she said in an interview. “You’re going to have a hard sell, and we’re going to have to start messaging about that now.”
Pfizer says it plans to submit data to the FDA for younger children, but it’s not clear if the agency will authorize the shot for those kids.
Some public health leaders believe they’ll eventually be included, even though risk of serious Covid-19 complications are lower for younger children than they are for older teens or adults.
Meanwhile, the rate of first doses administered throughout the country has begun to decline, a signal that Americans most eager for a vaccine have gotten one. Now, health leaders have to work harder to get vaccines to people with limited access, or to people who still aren’t sure they want to get inoculated.
“We need to anticipate whats coming because it’s better to anticipate and have a plan and have things ready to go than try to react to the situation,” Brunson said.
Public health messengers should start with a discussion of risks and benefits for kids and teens, said Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy and Department of Engineering and Public Policy.
Having that discussion sooner rather than later helps get in front of misinformation and makes public health messengers’ jobs easier, he said at a public health webinar Tuesday. Brunson also took part in the webinar.
Fischhoff also stressed informing older teens directly about vaccine risks and rewards. “Kids are agents in these decisions” and will value feeling respected and included in the conversation, he said. However, each family is different in terms of when kids make vaccination decisions themselves.
Brunson’s research found that people 18 to 23 tend to have “greater acceptance of other people and corresponding with that a greater desire to help everyone overall,” she said. Tapping into that desire to do good for others could be effective for persuading high school students to get shots.
Places like Michigan use some 16- and 17-year-olds as “ambassadors” for vaccines on a state level and locally, said Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive for the state of Michigan and chief deputy director for health in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“The latest Michigan surge was initially fueled by a younger age group,” Khaldun said at the Tuesday webinar. “Being able to say ‘Hey, you don’t want to quarantine, you want to continue your sports season'—for those older groups that’s a win and another reason to get vaccinated.”
If the time comes for really young kids like babies or toddlers to be considered for Covid-19 vaccination, “parents will have more questions,” Brunson said. “Pediatricians at that point are going to be a key messenger for parents with very young children.”