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Companies enlist vaccine whisperers to convince skeptical workers to get their jabs

April 28, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC

With so many people believing disinformation about COVID-19, employers face a big problem: convincing workers to get vaccinated.

Consider the American Health Care Association (AHCA), the nonprofit that represents over 14,000 U.S. nursing homes. Since December, it has been campaigning to reassure nursing home employees that vaccines are safe.

Conspiracy theories like 5G technologies helped contribute to the virus’s initial outbreak have sowed the seeds of doubt for many nursing home workers. And the fast development and worldwide rollout of the vaccines has also caused skepticism among workers who fear that safety may have been compromised. 

In response, the organization has hosted online meetings with health care workers so that medical experts can debunk some of the conspiracy theories around the COVID vaccinations, such as they cause infertility and can alter a person’s DNA. It has also posted on social media sites like Twitter and published educational materials like videos debunking COVID vaccine myths.

“This is a new vaccine, and so understandably families, residents, and health care workers all had questions about it,” explains AHCA chief medical officer David Gifford. “We want to make sure they have accurate information when making a decision about getting the vaccine.”

The AHCA’s coronavirus playbook is similar to the various COVID vaccine conspiracy theory debunking programs that many companies have introduced in recent months. Failing to get workers vaccinated could mean huge problems for companies, including having to shut down because of outbreaks and unnecessary deaths of employees and their family members.

As one would expect, the groups serving as corporate vaccine whisperers include major health care providers like the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health. But they also are drawn from the ranks of public relations giants like Edelman, which help craft corporate COVID messaging, along with groups like the Network Contagion Research Institute that study the spread of misinformation and propaganda.  

How to educate workers

Mayo Clinic vaccination expert Gregory Poland has tried to counter anti-vaccination beliefs throughout his 40-year career. Although most people approve of vaccines, some others are hesitant but open to learning, while a small group reject vaccines no matter what because of politics, religion, or culture. For these people, “data does not change their mind,” he says.

More recently, companies have asked Poland for help in dealing with workers who refuse to get COVID vaccinations. He has talked to business and academic leaders who he declined to name to help them strategize about educating workers. Invariably, he warns that they’ll be unable to convince every employee to get vaccinated. But, of course, the more who do so, the better.

Poland also conducts what he calls a “reality check” by asking managers if they “really understand the gravity” of the coronavirus pandemic. It helps that executives actually believe what they want their workers to believe.

Poland recommends that managers not talk down to workers who fear the vaccine because of the risk of generating resentment. Executives must understand that people have different styles of learning, with some responding better to raw data while others learn from more emotional stories that they can relate to, he says.

Sometimes, the level of education is a factor in how people absorb information, Poland notes. For instance, a baggage clerk at a hotel who has an eighth-grade education probably wouldn’t read an academic paper about COVID, Poland says.

“Put that document in front of them and it’s meaningless,” he says. “Give them an emotional story or a podcast or a statement from someone they respect, and you now just opened the door.”

Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has also talked to companies about the coronavirus. She recommends that managers send workers news articles about COVID from sources they trust, and for many, that’s local news instead of major metropolitan newspapers.

“People sometimes don’t trust the Times or Post,” Sell says, referring to the New York Times and Washington Post, “but they want to know what their local TV news station is saying.”

Kirsty Graham, CEO of Edelman’s public affairs practice, recommends that companies survey employees to learn why they’re concerned about COVID vaccines—to better address those anxieties in meetings. She also points to the importance of CEOs explaining why they got vaccinated, as a way to lead by example.

Something as simple as a CEO sharing a social post of themselves getting vaccinated can resonate with workers, Graham says.

Countering COVID conspiracies is hard

Another way companies can sway employees is through incentives like offering paid days off to receive the vaccine, or health premium discounts, experts said. Apple, for instance, was reported to have offered employees paid time off and paid sick leave if they experience any side effects. 

But the danger is that offering financial incentives can be viewed as coercive. 

Poland acknowledges the challenges of dealing with people who refuse vaccines. But it may be possible to persuade them using logic and appealing to their values. In one example, he says he was able to convince members of a religious organization that he declined to identify by presenting them with the following paradox: 

“Explain to me how you can be pro-life and yet be both anti-mask and anti-vaccine?” Poland recalls asking. “You can’t, it’s a logical inconsistency.” 

For some health care workers who believe that COVID vaccines contain microchips that track people or cause infertility, Gifford says he and his staff listened to their concerns and put themselves in their shoes. For these people, “their concern is real, and their decisions make sense based on what they have heard,” he says.

To counter the misinformation, Gifford says he explained why the microchip belief is unfounded. For one, that kind of nano-technology doesn’t exist, although people may believe it does because of movies they’ve seen. If that technology were available, it would be used for other purposes, he says. Additionally, Gifford says he told them that COVID vaccines are being used worldwide, and that no one studying vaccine ingredients has found microchips. To believe that microchips are embedded in the vaccine would be to believe a “worldwide conspiracy that is just not possible.”

“The lawsuits would put people out of business,” Gifford says.

Still, not every worker will want to get vaccinated, and companies will have to decide whether they will require it. Tracey Diamond, a partner at the law firm Troutman Pepper, says businesses can require that workers get the vaccine, but employers may have to deal with some workers on a case-by-case basis if those workers have disabilities like an allergy to some vaccines or have religious conflicts.

Ultimately, Gifford says that the AHCA hopes to convince about 75% of nursing home workers to get vaccinated by early fall. That percentage gets close to natural herd immunity, in which if enough people are vaccinated, there’s less of a threat that the coronavirus will significantly spread, he explains.

As of early April, the number is at 55%, Gifford says.

“It is a meaningful goal for us,” he says, adding that he hopes “we will be well over that.”

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