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Parents’ Support for Child Vaccinations Is Waning, at the Worst Time Possible

Our survey shows parents’ support of child vaccines is down from four months ago. With child vaccinations only days away, public health communicators are at a critical turning point.

The FDA Advisory Panel’s endorsement on Tuesday of Coronavirus vaccinations for children ages 5-11 means kids could be receiving shots as soon as next week. For some parents, these headlines will be met with a collective sigh of relief, followed by a mad dash to ensure their children are signed up for a vaccination as soon as possible.

But new data commissioned by The Rockefeller Foundation shows that a growing number of parents are likely greeting this week’s news with a collective shrug.

This rising uncertainty from parents on child vaccinations is signaling to public health communicators that the next three months could be the most important yet in our fight against this virus.

Child Vaccination – Another Big Hurdle

For more than a year, The Rockefeller Foundation has been asking Americans about their attitudes and behaviors related to Covid-19. We’ve also evaluated messaging on public health behaviors like masking, rapid testing and vaccination to find out which words and phrases work best to motivate Americans to adopt preventative measures. Over the past fifteen months, we’ve conducted five national surveys and have used this information to inform public health professionals about which messages resonate with most Americans.

Our latest findings, conducted in September 2021, confirmed some of our expectations about the effects of the Delta variant but also provided some surprises. Americans said they generally are feeling less safe and more concerned about contracting Covid-19 now than they were four months ago. But during this same time period, parents’ support for vaccinating their children has gone down eight percentage points. Only 36% of parents in September said they were “very likely” to vaccinate their kids if the vaccines receive FDA approval, down from 44% of parents in May. Alternatively, those “not likely at all” to vaccinate their kids went up seven points, from 17 to 24%.

This softening support for child vaccination should set off alarm bells for public health communicators. This week’s announcement paving the way for Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 5-11 years old means about 28 million children ages are now eligible to start receiving Covid-19 vaccination shots. Getting the messaging right for this rollout is critical to ensuring significant vaccination rates among children. It’s another big hurdle in what has already been a long and difficult race.

Confusing Messages

It would be easy, especially after this long pandemic, for communicators to try and dismiss these numbers as just a subset of parents who are ignoring the threat. But that shortcut assumption isn’t logical or true. Instead, because they perceive that the steps they’ve been taking so far have worked to keep their kids safe, why should they change their behavior when any change is perceived as an increased risk?

Our data also shows that parents are understandably confused. For example, we asked parents which Covid-19 safety steps their child’s school had implemented this year. One in four parents admitted they didn’t know what safety steps their school had implemented. Recognizing that their child’s health and safety at school—especially during a pandemic—is certainly a parent’s top priority, how do we explain this lack of information for one-in-four parents?

Parents have been inundated with messages—sometimes conflicting, frequently confusing—on how to stay safe in this pandemic. They’re listening intently to national public health experts, media personalities, politicians and local health departments, along with their school leaders. They’re trying to make sense of it all and do the right thing each day to keep themselves and their families safe.

This isn’t a new problem. Parents have acknowledged throughout this pandemic that they’re confused and want more information. In a separate survey we commissioned with the RAND Corporation in July, 1 in 3 parents said they don’t feel informed on their school’s Covid-19 safety measures, and 6 in 10 parents said they want more information about the specific safety measures in their schools.

Clear and Connective Communications Makes a Difference

As public health communicators, where do we go from here? I believe we have a responsibility to redouble our efforts at this key moment—another critical turning point in our fight against this virus—and go back to listening first, with empathy. We can turn these numbers around if we focus on our two most important audiences for child vaccinations: parents and educators.

For educators, we need to help them simplify their public health communications. Remember, they’re overwhelmed too, and not experienced in communicating these health-focused messages. At Rockefeller, we learned about educator challenges first-hand back in July, when we worked with Mathematica to develop school testing guidance for schools. Educators at the more than 300 participating schools and affiliated locations told us that clear and consistent communication from trusted community leaders was one of the most important success factors to ensure community buy-in.

For parents, we need to meet them where they are. Our message testing has shown what messages work best. Along with listening first, with empathy, we need to work to acknowledge our social connections and help parents understand how they can regain control of their lives. More importantly, and especially now, our testing shows us what doesn’t work: Don’t try to bury parents with data. Don’t use ultimatums. And don’t try to shame parents into submission.

Let’s use this as an opportunity to turn these numbers back in the right direction, using the lessons we’ve learned already. The clock is ticking. Let’s work together to get this rollout right.