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Maryland prepares to launch vast coronavirus vaccine messaging program as FDA weighs approval

Maryland health officials will embark soon on a multifaceted messaging campaign — possibly featuring celebrities, faith-based leaders and trusted “community messengers” — to entice state residents to get COVID-19 vaccines.

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set to publicly review the data Thursday for Pfizer’s vaccine, the first candidate to seek emergency use authorization from the agency, approval for distribution could come by the end of the week. The FDA also will review the data for Moderna’s vaccine candidate in the coming days.

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But, said Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s top public health official, citing a medical adage: “Vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccinations save lives.”

Convincing the public of the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine will require educating health care workers and other distribution agents of the nuances of each candidate — what makes them different as well as what still remains unknown about them, Chan said during a panel discussion hosted Monday by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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Some outstanding questions about the vaccines — such as the degree of immunity they offer, their ability to prevent transmission, and how well they will protect children and pregnant women — will require more time and research to determine. Recipients of the vaccine should have these questions in mind, as well as the health benefits they offer, before consenting to getting them, Chan said.

So far, the vaccine candidates that have sought emergency approval have reported promising results from their late-stage Phase 3 clinical trials, and could prevent as much as 95% of all recipients from contracting COVID-19, said Dr. William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, at Monday’s event. So far, no extreme adverse side effects have been reported, and most are likely to surface within 30 to 40 days after vaccination.

Not every community will respond equally to every messenger or ad campaign, said Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner and another panelist at Monday’s event.

Focus group research conducted by the city health department about flu vaccine hesitancy revealed the importance of highlighting diverse and representative voices in vaccine campaigns, Dzirasa said, especially among the Black community.

“Individuals wanted media campaigns where individuals looked like them,” she said. “When I think about the African American community in particular, and what we know about medical mistrust and vaccine hesitancy, it’ll be important to focus and target our messaging to dismantle those concerns outright. We’ll have to address the root causes.”

Younger audiences might respond more to Instagram “influencers” about vaccines as opposed to older adults, who might be better served via religious figures in their communities or with webinars featuring trusted medical experts. People with primary care physicians at their disposal might trust them more than those without such access, and some Latinx community members will need all language barriers lowered.

Already, three past U.S. presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — have committed to getting vaccinated on camera for the explicit purpose of promoting them. Sports figures, high-profile activists and state-level institutions such as the University of Maryland Medical System and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield might be deployed as well.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the Republican will anchor Maryland’s information campaign, which will be complemented by statewide public service announcements.

“It will be hyperlocal in focus and fold in trusted community leaders to help address vaccine hesitancy among critical populations,” Ricci added in an email.

Maryland’s draft mass vaccination plan follows national guidance in putting the priority on front-line health care workers followed by those in nursing homes and first responders. But the state’s first batch of doses might total only 155,000, half the volume needed to vaccinate Maryland’s “essential” health care workers, Hogan said last week at a news conference.

Health care professionals can play a huge role in information dissemination, Chan said. They will receive targeted messaging from their employers and state medical associations aimed at answering possible questions that could come up as they not only administer vaccines but also persuade patients to seek them out.

The state also will lean heavily on the Baltimore City Health Department, Chan said, in developing a “not-one-size-fits-all” approach to vaccinations.

Under Dzirasa’s administration, the city health department set up the Baltimore Health Corps, a public-private partnership aimed at solving the intertwined public health and economic crises by employing jobless individuals to tackle case management, contact tracing, outreach, education and social services among the city’s most at-risk residents. The city also developed mobile testing and flu vaccination sites and “PODs,” or points of dispensing, for individuals without transportation. Senior housing complexes, for example, made for successful PODs.

Similar to some COVID-19 testing sites, the health department likely will ask residents to preregister for vaccinations to minimize crowds, Dzirasa said in an email after the panel discussion.

“We have identified multiple sites in the City as possible locations for administering the COVID-19 vaccine,” she added. “The number of sites we open will be based on how many vaccine doses the Baltimore City Health Department initially receives from the Maryland Department of Health, and will likely change as more vaccine becomes available.”

The city and state also will collect data on vaccine recipients to ensure that individual populations are being targeted effectively and to keep track of how many doses each person has been given. Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines require two doses three to four weeks apart.

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