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WVU researchers inform COVID-19 vaccine communication

The first shipments of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine arrived in West Virginia on December 14. As doses are administered, researchers from the West Virginia University Public Interest Communication Research Lab are focused on making sure West Virginians get timely, accurate and scientifically sound information related to the vaccine. 

The PIC Research Lab, a cross-disciplinary unit created by the WVU Reed College of Media and housed in the College's Media Innovation Center, was awarded a contract with the West Virginia Center for Rural Health Development to perform COVID-19 messaging analysis to guide the development of a communication campaign developed by Digital Relativity, a Fayetteville company, also contracted with the Center for Rural Health Development. 

“CDC guidance and vaccine timelines are always evolving,” Julia Daisy Fraustino said. An assistant professor and PIC Lab director in the WVU Reed College of Media and lead investigator on the messaging analysis, Fraustino added, “On top of that, there is a lot of confusion and misinformation nationally about the safety of the vaccine. Through this investigation, we are able to better understand the concerns of West Virginians specifically and inform communication planning that builds confidence in the vaccine.”

Fraustino and the co-investigators, who include Geah Pressgrove, associate professor in the WVU Reed College of Media, and Daniel Totzkay, assistant professor of communication studies in the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, began work in August by first developing statewide online surveys to gauge general perceptions related to health risks and beliefs about COVID-19 and vaccines. Survey questions covered topics such as COVID-19 health and risk beliefs, vaccine history and beliefs, trust in vaccine scientists and the federal government, confidence in the vaccine approval process and demographic data like age, gender, race, education, income, occupation and political affiliation.

Additionally, the team will conduct virtual interviews and focus groups through both video and phone call options to reach residents of diverse backgrounds and broadband access. The goal is to understand a myriad of social and cultural components for various audiences to create vaccine messaging that resonates with unique self-interests and is delivered by messengers they trust through specific channels that they prefer.

“We aim to reach all parts of the state with our messages, especially rural, underserved and minority communities,” Elaine Darling, senior program director for the WV Center for Rural Health Development said. “While it is vital that vaccines are allocated and distributed equitably, it is also important that our communications are reaching communities in an equitable way.”

A nonprofit organization in Hurricane, the Center, is the lead agency for several health care delivery programs including the WV Immunization Network, a statewide coalition of more than 400 members focused on improving vaccination rates and protecting West Virginians from vaccine-preventable diseases. The Center and the Immunization Network have conducted media and communications campaigns in the past to improve vaccination rates in the state, but COVID-19 is uncharted territory.

“As with everything COVID-related there are a lot of moving parts and new questions that arise daily, so we will be adjusting campaign to be able to address the questions and concerns that we hear from communities and based on what the data are telling us,” Darling said. 

As the vaccine becomes increasingly available to critical populations and the general public, the PIC Lab researchers will continue to monitor and evaluate changing perceptions and behaviors and make recommendations about message strategies, channels and spokespersons.

“Our initial analyses have shown that West Virginians want to trust the vaccine development process and are seeking information about the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness,” Fraustino explained. “As the first vaccines are becoming available, we’re working with phenomenal community partners in a coordinated statewide effort that takes an evidence-based approach to ensure that West Virginians have access to clear, accurate information. We will continue to monitor and adapt our recommendations to shifting attitudes and behaviors as vaccines become available to general public.” 

The COVID-19 vaccination communication analysis and statewide campaign are funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health.