With Mainers 16 and older set to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine next month, a statewide social media campaign is working to convince hesitant people to get their shots.
Willy Ritch, founder of Portland-based Salt Public Affairs, said in an interview last week that while the “majority of people” are going to get the vaccine, recent data have shown that nearly a third of Americans do not plan to get vaccinated.
“If 30 percent of us don’t get vaccinated then we’re not all going to be protected,” Ritch said. “Even though the majority of people are not hesitant, there’s enough for it to be concerning.”
The same survey that found 30 percent of Americans said they would not be vaccinated, which was conducted by NPR in partnership with PBS NewsHour and Marist College, found answers varied widely depending on respondents’ race and political affiliations.
Republican men, for instance, were most likely to say they would not be vaccinated, with 49 percent answering that way, followed by 47 percent of respondents who supported Donald Trump’s reelection.
The group least likely to refuse the vaccine, according to the survey, was Black people, with only 25 percent saying they would choose not to be vaccinated.
Ritch said Do Our Part takes a “very systematic approach” by reading about what different demographics of Mainers are saying about getting vaccinated across social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
“The smart people tell me that so far the rate of vaccination has been constrained by the supply of vaccines, but we’re rapidly getting to the point where it will be constrained by demand,” he said. “In other words, we’ll have all the vaccines in Maine that we need but there just won’t be the uptake.”
Ritch said while he knew there would likely be other campaigns to get people to take the COVID-19 vaccine in Maine, this is a movement he felt “couldn’t wait.”
He said Do Our Part raised approximately $100,000 from private donors for its startup, and there is “absolutely nothing political” about the program. It “bends over backwards to make sure that (its) creators are not getting involved in anything partisan,” Ritch said, despite research showing conservatives tend to be more hesitant.
After reviewing social media posts, Do Our Part enlists what Ritch called “micro-influencers,” or people who have between 1,000 and 10,000 followers on various social media platforms, to post messages in support of being vaccinated. Ritch said while Do Our Part provides the influencers with talking points, the group wants them to post messages that are “genuine and heartfelt.”
Do Our Part then analyzes the engagement each post attracts. For the posts that get a lot of likes and comments, the group pays social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to spread those messages even wider.
Some of those cohorts, Ritch said, include the elderly and the immigrant community in Maine, which had different reasons for their hesitancy.
The elderly were a priority, he said, because they are not only the most vulnerable to COVID-19 but also “the No. 1 target of misinformation.”
In Maine’s immigrant community, he said every immigrant leader Do Our Part spoke with has been “committed to making sure that people get the vaccine.”
There has been some hesitancy, however, from older members of the community, due to disinformation circulating about whether there are “religious prohibitions” to the vaccine.
Younger immigrants who are skeptical of the vaccine, he said, may be thinking about legitimate “historical racial bias” that has occurred in United States medicine in the past, which might fuel their distrust of medical authorities.
The key is to find where the hesitancy comes from in each of the different cohorts, Ritch said. He added that Do Our Part is now primarily focusing on conservative voters in Maine’s rural communities.
Ritch also said he thinks everyone probably knows someone who is a little hesitant to receive the vaccine. Hundreds of Maine’s first responders, for instance, indicated in a WGME survey last month that they would refuse the vaccine if it is not required by their employers.
At MaineHealth, employees are not required to be vaccinated, said John Porter, the health network’s associate vice president for communications and public affairs.
However, Porter said, 77 percent of MaineHealth’s employees had received at least one dose as of last week, and 73 percent had received two. Porter also said MaineHealth is “strongly encouraging” employees to be vaccinated when they are eligible. Some who have not been vaccinated do not yet qualify or are awaiting their appointments, which makes it difficult to say who is hesitant, he said.
Ritch said while it is hard to measure whether Do Our Part is changing people’s minds, the group can measure the amount of digital engagement on its posts, which has been high.
The benchmark for people clicking on most digital ads, he said, is less than 1 percent, but Do Our Part’s ads have recently been averaging 20 percent click-through rates.
Part of the issue with vaccine hesitancy, he added, is that many people are not “trusting institutions anymore,” including the media and the government.
Ritch said he thinks Facebook has done a good job of pointing people to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for COVID-19 information, but everyone needs to do their part.
“I just firmly believe we need to keep regular, average people in our community communicating about this on these platforms that everyone uses,” he said. “(They need to talk about) why they believe the vaccine is safe and effective and why they’re getting vaccinated.”