Why the Phone Is Key to Getting Covid Shots in Arms

Getting to herd immunity requires a political campaign, not a public health effort. We know.

Getting Americans vaccinated against Covid-19 has mirrored the inequities and challenges we often see in our political process. We can learn from the parallels. Just as we need get-out-the-vote campaigns to get citizens to the polls, we require a targeted ground game to get shots in the arms of all Americans. We know how to do this—and we know that it’s done one conversation at a time. While it’s true that inoculations are way up, the only way to make all of us safe is to get to herd immunity as soon as we can. This is no time to let up.

How do we know? In past years, our nonprofit organization Healthier Colorado teamed up with Winning Connections, a Washington, D.C.-based telephone political persuasion firm, to convince communities of color in our state to get vaccinated for diseases such as measles and chicken pox. Now, we’re focused on Covid-19.

For reasons ranging from safety concerns to logistical hurdles to conspiracy theories, a sizable group of Coloradans and other Americans are declining the Covid-19 vaccine. Skepticism is high among key groups. For example, Black adults and rural residents often say they will wait and see about getting the vaccine. And while numbers have improved over the past month, a poll released at the end of March by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost 30 percent of Republicans and white evangelical Christians, for example, say they will “definitely not” get a shot.

In Colorado, we have learned that overcoming distrust of government and Big Pharma in general, and vaccines in particular, requires tactics more commonly employed in political campaigns. We cannot rely on a “build it and they will come” philosophy. “One size fits all” won’t work for the vaccine challenge.

The phone-based campaigns we employ are especially effective today because large numbers of people are at home. They also are a way to reach people when door-to-door efforts and meetings are limited during the pandemic.

Today we are recruiting Black and Latino residents to get Covid-19 vaccinations at pop-up vaccination clinics in the Denver metro area. Winning Connections is calling Coloradans of color one by one to persuade them to take the vaccine and then phoning with appointment reminders later to ensure that people show up. We have real, trained humans doing the calling. No robocalls.

If there is concern about the vaccine among Spanish speakers, trained bilingual callers are prepared with accurate information and stories that have been proven to change peoples’ minds. For example: “would you be more likely to take the vaccine if you know that the Covid-19 vaccines approved by the FDA are almost 100 percent effective in preventing severe disease and death?” This metacognitive processing, which occurs when individuals realize they were misinformed, has been proven to change opinions, even of those who appear inflexible.

Likewise, to ensure that residents show up at their appointments, we use scripts based on behavioral psychology techniques that have succeeded in past campaigns to get people to vote and to send in census forms. A Winning Connections caller might ask, “when you go to get your vaccine, will you drive, walk or take a bus?” This might be followed by, “will you go alone or with a family member or friend?” This approach is critical, because a sizable number of people around the country have not shown up for appointments. Psychological experiments have repeatedly demonstrated that getting an individual to visualize how they will carry out a future activity makes them more likely to do it.

We tailor the scripts. A senior citizen who is Black may get a different message than a young Hispanic parent, even if they are neighbors. And where necessary, the callers will speak in Spanish.

This is a conversation with Coloradans about the facts. It helps them better understand the benefits and safety of modern vaccines.

You might think that people are saturated with Covid-19 information. But that’s not the case. We also have found, via focus groups and polling, that people are hungry for Covid-19-related information that is objective, nonpartisan, and realistic. Research also shows that people are persuaded when callers highlight the specific benefits of being vaccinated rather than vaguely talking about a return to normal. Just as campaigns try to sway “low information” voters, we try to get facts to those who want to know more.

Often, we hear that an election is the “most important of our lifetime.” The campaign to administer Covid-19 vaccines is truly the most important of the century. We’re in a race to vaccinate swiftly and safely before more variants of the virus take hold. We can win this race—one conversation at a time.

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Jake Williams

Jake Williams is executive director of Healthier Colorado, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving health and wellbeing.

John Jameson

John Jameson is the founder and president of Washington, DC-based Winning Connections, a political persuasion firm.