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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Researchers Say A Personal Touch Is The Best Way To Encourage Vaccinations

Image of transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health
Internationally, scientists now have on file the genomes of more than 47,000 different samples of the virus that causes COVID-19 — up from just one in January. Here’s a transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (orange) isolated from a patient.

Wyoming's cases of COVID-19 have jumped to over 1,300 active cases, mainly due to the highly contagious delta variant. But vaccination rates also remain low at roughly 35 percent of the state's population. A group of University of Wyoming (UW) researchers recently studied what messages did the best job of convincing people across the country to get vaccinated. UW doctorate student Madison Ashworth was the lead author of the paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's the latest in a series of coronavirus-related research conducted by UW College of Business economists. She spoke with Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck.

Bob Beck: Madison, what was the purpose of this study?

Madison Ashworth: Well, the purpose of doing this study was we're really interested, you know, how we can encourage people to get vaccinated for, you know, for COVID-19, we knew we were going to face some significant barriers, and our team has been working on the COVID-19 research. And we really just wanted to apply some work that we had already started to the COVID-19 problem, because we did know that, especially in Wyoming, we were going to face some barriers. So we just wanted to kind of do our part and see what we could do to help.

BB: Now you actually did your research across the country, is that correct?

MA: Yeah, we definitely did. So in our national sample,we tested these different information messages to see how we could encourage vaccine uptake. And in the national sample, we did see a pretty significant effect on some of our messages, specifically, the message emphasizing personal health benefits of getting vaccinated. But in Wyoming, we really didn't see any effect of any of our messages. So what we've kind of found in comparison to the national samples is that Wyoming vaccine rates are particularly sticky in regards to inflammation measures. So these kinds of information messages and campaigns might not be as effective in Wyoming, particularly as they are in the national sample.

Photo of Madison Ashworth on the UW campus
University of Wyoming News Service
Madison Ashworth
A portrait of scientist Madison Ashworth, in a grey blazer and white shirt, smiling with her hands in her jeans

BB: Well, that's interesting. We'll get back to that in just a second. So nationally, would you explain what seems to be the most effective?

MA: In our study, we tested a variety of different information messages. We tested whether emphasizing personal health benefits of getting vaccinated was more important than emphasizing the social benefits of getting vaccinated. Such as the benefits to your local community or your friends and family. We also looked at how important the economic benefits of getting vaccinated were. And what we found was that messages emphasizing the personal health benefits of getting vaccinated was the most effective across the board. And when we did look at combinations of these different messages, we found that combining this personal health benefit message with other messages, kind of diluted how powerful that message was. So when we combined all three of our benefit messages, we had a lower vaccine, right. But if we just gave the personal benefit message on its own, there was some diluting, but it wasn't a significant amount that would say, don't give any other messages at all. But there was, it is definitely important to emphasize that personal health benefits.

BB: So the personal benefit, health benefit is going to be the most effective in your findings. So I guess the question is, you've got a lot of famous people, you've got politicians, you've got others who have done messaging, is all of that useless?

MA: Definitely not, I don't think it is at all. And, you know, we did our study, back before there was actually a vaccine available. So that is one limitation of our study that's important to take into account is that these are vaccine tensions. And so what we're seeing is that this personal health benefit message is super important to push going forward. But one thing also with our study is that we didn't look at the source of the information. So you know, all these famous people, celebrities endorsing the vaccine can be an effective method as well. But one thing we just want to keep in mind when we're kind of having these celebrities or trusted government officials push the vaccine is to keep in mind that they should definitely mention the personal health benefits of getting vaccinated and maybe not focus as much on the social benefits.

BB: So what did you find in Wyoming that was different?

MA: What was different is that we just didn't see an effect of our messages at all. So for example, in our national survey, the group that didn't have any kind of message given to them, they had a vaccine intention about 49%. So 49% of the people in that group said they intended to get the COVID-19 vaccine. However, when we gave people the personal benefit information, that intention rate jumped to 65%. So we saw a pretty good increase in the intention to get vaccinated. However, when we looked at the Wyoming results, we saw in our group that got no message about 48% of people intended to get the vaccine. And if we looked at our private benefit message, that only jumped to about 50%. So we don't see any of the messages being particularly effective in Wyoming.

BB: Do you have a hypothesis of why that might be?

MA: In Wyoming, compared to the national sample, we did see a very high number of individuals saying that they didn't think COVID-19 was as severe. So compared to the national sample, just less people said that that was an important reason. So people in Wyoming just don't think COVID is severe and it doesn't warrant vaccination. And it makes sense, if you look at Wyoming residents, I mean, Wyoming is a pretty rural area, it's a pretty low populated state. So the COVID-19 incidence just hasn't been as high in Wyoming compared to other areas across the globe. And so we just don't see that kind of risk is salient to Wyoming as in other places.

BB: When you interviewed people in Wyoming, were those who lived in places where there were more cases more inclined to get the vaccine?

MA: We didn't look at those kinds of subsets. Within Wyoming, we kind of just looked at Wyoming as a whole. But what we did see in our results is that people who have had a previous experience with COVID-19, are more likely to get the vaccine. So if you know someone who had COVID-19, and had a severe case of it, you are more likely to get vaccinated. So any kind of exposure to COVID-19. Of course, we don't want that to happen to anyone. But the more exposure to COVID-19 you have, the more likely you are to get vaccinated. And so I would imagine, in the counties and cities in Wyoming that have had higher rates of COVID, you are likely to see some more back to back higher vaccination rates.

BB: Do you have a conclusion or any idea what might work here?

MA: The biggest thing that I've taken away from especially being a resident, is that information coming from a researcher, a pamphlet, or isn't going to be nearly as effective as just talking to your local community members. So when you know and trust the information coming from them, that's going to be a lot more important. So I think the best thing you can do if you are someone who wants to encourage people to get vaccinated, is to talk to those around you and talk to those around you with understanding, don't come at it as a fight, but just be empathetic to what their concerns are and really trying to address those concerns.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.

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