Adjusting Your Public Health Campaign During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Co-Author: Hannah Rothman

COVID-19 has been on the forefront of everyone’s mind since the pandemic started in the U.S. back in March. However, the seasonal flu remains a serious and potentially deadly threat, particularly for elderly individuals, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems. The District of Columbia reports that only approximately one-third of its residents receive the flu vaccine each year. Ideally, the percentage of District residents receiving the vaccine would be much higher, as the vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older. There are numerous factors that contribute to individuals’ hesitancy to obtain the flu vaccine, including myths that the vaccine is not effective or that it makes you sick.

In Vanguard’s work with a Medicaid managed care organization in the District, we recently planned and implemented a communications campaign promoting the flu vaccine to the organization’s members. It was important for us to adjust our outreach strategies in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some takeaways that we recommend you consider when planning your public health campaign:

Address distrust with trusted experts.

Research shows that people of color are more hesitant to get the flu vaccine compared to white people in the U.S. This reluctance is due, in part, to a history of abusive and highly unethical medical practices, as well as longstanding inequities and racism in the health care industry. The majority of our audience is Black or Hispanic, so we knew distrust of vaccines and the health care system in general would be a key barrier to address.

One strategy we implemented to address this issue is having a community messenger who is trusted by our audience explain the importance of getting a flu shot. Ideally, this person lives or works in the same area as your audience and has already established credibility with them.

Explain how COVID-19 and your public health topic are connected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that it is more important than ever to get the flu vaccine this year due to co-occurrence of the flu and COVID-19. The concern is that hospitals and other health care entities will not have the capacity to handle the surge of people who may become sick from either virus. In addition, many of the symptoms of the flu mirror COVID-19, and individuals can also catch both viruses simultaneously. Therefore, your audience may be likely to receive the flu shot if they understand why the 2020 – 2021 flu season is different from prior years (with COVID-19 around) and it is worth leaving your home to get the flu shot.

Develop campaign materials in an efficient manner.

Due to the economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations across the country are more conscious about their budget and spending. As such, it is important to look for ways to repurpose and amplify content in order to save your organization’s funds. For example, Vanguard developed a set of infographics promoting the flu shot to different groups, including high-risk beneficiaries. These infographics were then adapted and reused for other communications channels (e.g., website, social media, newsletter, print advertisements, digital advertisements, and direct mail to members).

Create content for your partner organizations.

We made it easy for providers and partner organizations to promote flu vaccinations among their patients and communities. In particular, we focused on our partners’ ability to perform targeted outreach to high-risk individuals. You can leverage your campaign materials by providing them to your partners to distribute to their communities. For example, we helped our client create flyers to promote the flu vaccine that could be used in providers’ offices around the District.

Shift from physical to virtual engagement strategies.

In prior years, hosting events where people could get the flu vaccine was a successful tactic. Varying locations and hours enabled residents to choose a convenient site. However, the current risks of in-person gatherings prompted us to employ a virtual strategy this year. We have especially leveraged social media to engage the community we normally interact with in person. While everyone older than 6 months should get the flu vaccine, you might consider putting extra effort toward reaching adults who are 65 years old and older, parents of children younger than 5 years old, pregnant women, and other groups who are at high risk for developing flu-related complications.