Do COVID-19 vaccines have a public relations problem?

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By , KCBS Radio

Do COVID-19 vaccines have a PR problem?

"Yes. I think they do," laughed Dr. Monica Gandhi, Professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine at UCSF/San Francisco General Hospital.

For starters, she said the headlines about the vaccines that are currently approved for use in the United States have been that they are about 95 percent effective. But Dr. Gandhi said, where it really matters, they are even better than that.

"These vaccines are amazing," she told KCBS Radio's "As Prescribed."

"The Moderna and Pfizer vaccine prevented severe outcomes - and that was either hospitalizations, deaths, or even just having oxygen that was low - by not 95 percent - 100 percent. The 95 percent was all categories of disease, including mild infection."

She said four other vaccines not yet authorized in the United States had similar results when it comes to the prevention of severe disease. Where they have been found to be variable is with their prevention of mild infections, with symptoms more similar to common colds.

"What we are disturbed about of SARS-CoV-2, and what we should be disturbed about, is its ability to cause severe diseases. It’s what has landed us into this situation of masks, distancing, ventilation, lockdowns. It’s because of the severe. So taking away the severe outcomes - and that happened in South Africa with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine - it’s been defanged, even with the variants."

Dr. Gandhi also thinks we have been playing down how people’s lives can improve after they get are fully vaccinated. Because it remains unclear whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus, the advice has been that people should not change their behavior, even after getting both shots.

While questions remain about transmission, she said that messaging is missing some of the nuance.

"For example, my mother is going to be vaccinated," she explained. "I am vaccinated because I am a healthcare professional. We can just sit and run around as close as we want to be - right? Because we’re both vaccinated. But when she comes to see me, she will need to mask on the plane - which is absolutely appropriate. And she will distance from others because of that small chance...that she could have (the virus) in her nose."

She looks at the approach in Europe as an example.

"All you see in Europe is ads on a billboard that shows someone getting a vaccine who’s older and saying 'I do this so I can hug my grandchild; I do this so I can go to a gathering; I do this because I want to get back to normal life,'" she said.

She said it's important to send people those messages of hope.

"These effects of mental illness, loneliness, the older people staying away from their grandchildren - those are also real. Those are also important effects of this pandemic. So we should be able message what they can do when you’ve been vaccinated."

When public health messaging is not based in facts, it can lead to distrust.

"I know we like soundbites in this country. Use nuanced messaging like they’re using in Europe that says - this is what you can do when you’re vaccinated, this is what you can do when you’re unvaccinated, this is what you do when you pair these two people together - and trust the public to understand the difference."

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