President-elect Joe Biden’s team is feverishly working to get a messaging plan in place to sell a skeptical public on the first FDA-backed coronavirus vaccine, believing the Trump administration has set the effort back significantly.
Biden implied on Friday that he’s not going to wait until he takes office to start counteracting Trump’s mixed messaging on the vaccine, which includes downplaying the public health threat of the coronavirus while hailing the unprecedented speed at which a shot was developed.
“We’re in the teeth of the crisis right now,” the president-elect said while introducing a group of Cabinet nominees and administration picks. “This nation needs presidential leadership right now. … You know, we can wish this away, but we have to face it head on.”
With the first shots being prepared for delivery to states next week, Biden’s team is already laying the groundwork for a public education campaign by placing scientists in top posts — and promising to defer to them — and putting an intensive focus on getting the vaccine to underserved populations, according to public health experts who’ve spoken with the transition.
Biden’s messaging now could have an impact on how quickly the U.S. gets back to normal. Health experts think if 75 to 80 percent of Americans get the shots, the nation can potentially achieve herd immunity by next fall and end the pandemic by the close of next year. Lower participation would mean it would take much longer to effectively stop new infections.
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“It’s not enough to just get the vaccine out into the community, but getting the community to accept the vaccine,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at University of Minnesota and a member of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, who characterizes the dilemma as “the last-inch challenge.”
The Biden team is confronting steep challenges: A monthslong political fight over public health measures like mask wearing has left many crisis-fatigued Americans wary of mandates and new cures and distrustful of government. And tight budgets have left states unable to mount robust awareness campaigns of their own.
“Now we’ve got to do damage control,” he said, adding that he’d like to see Biden task the Commerce, Homeland Security and State departments with addressing disinformation.
Those efforts could be combined with personal appeals from figures in public health and other fields. Vin Gupta, a critical care doctor and pulmonologist who advised the Biden campaign, said he plans to get inoculated on national television.
“Making sure that you have communicators that are credible, authentic, [is] absolutely vital, and I think you’re going to need different types of communicators going to different segments of society,” he said.