SRU professor stresses public health advocacy for COVID-19 vaccinations


Elderly women receiving a vaccine

Convincing the public to get COVID-19 vaccinations is a challenge for many public health professionals. Slippery Rock University students who are majoring in public health are learning skills to effect behavioral change to increase people’s health and safety.

Feb. 1, 2021

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The availability of the coronavirus vaccine is a priority for government agencies and health care providers to help end the COVID-19 pandemic, but what about educating people who are reluctant to trust vaccinations? That's a concern for public health professionals who must wage campaigns to advocate for widespread vaccinations, according to Alexander Ufelle, a Slippery Rock University assistant professor of public health and social work.

"There are people who have beliefs that oppose receiving the vaccine," Ufelle said. "This is the first time that a vaccine was developed within such a short period of time, so people have a lot of perceptions in terms of how safe it is. As a public health professional, you have to figure out how to communicate with people in order to achieve an end."

The "end" to the pandemic will be achieved through herd immunity, which is a term used to describe when a majority of the population becomes immune to a disease, providing indirect protection to people who aren't immune. According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, herd immunity would take about 70% of the population becoming immune to the coronavirus. Herd immunity can be achieved in two ways: a large percentage of people getting infected or by receiving a vaccine.

Based on the United States' 1.7% mortality rate from COVID-19, millions of Americans would have to die to achieve herd immunity via mass infection. However, allowing people to catch the virus all at once would also exceed the capacity of the health care system. Additionally, according to the Mayo Clinic, it is still not clear to researchers if having the coronavirus makes a person completely immune to future infection.

"We have to educate people about the vaccine and the need for them to take it to protect themselves and the vulnerable people in the entire population," Ufelle said. "Sometimes it's easier to bombard people with information, but a better approach is to listen to them, and understand their experiences and why they have their opinions. That way, you are better able to address some of the things they still need to understand."

Ufelle headshot


Because vaccinations are not mandatory for American citizens, public health professionals have to think deeply about ways to get people to trust the science. These strategies are addressed in two graduate-level classes that Ufelle teaches at SRU: Social and Behavioral Aspects of Health and Wellness, which analyzes social and cultural aspects of disease prevention; and Planning and Implementation of Public Health Strategies, which provides students the core skills in public health and wellness program planning, development and implementation.

"(In those classes we're trying) to figure out how do you make people change their behavior in order to become healthier," Ufelle said. "Understanding how people think and understanding their cultural belief systems goes a long way in trying to convince people to change their behavior. You have to give people the impression that you're not forcing them to do something. It's something that is going to benefit them. That's the better way to move forward."

In addition to listening to people, Ufelle said that building trust comes from educating people at the local level and through their peers, as well as using different approaches based on the audience demographics. For example, instead of a public health official from Washington, D.C. or Harrisburg, people in Butler County might be better influenced by local public health professionals or, in the case of SRU students, seniors who are educated about the topic and can better relate to younger classmates.

Influencing large groups of people is a distinction between the public health discipline and other health care professionals.

"Public health, by definition, is the health of the entire population," Ufelle said. "The health sector, such as hospitals, is focused on the health of individuals. You might get direction from your doctor about whether or not to get a vaccine, but public health officials are concerned about everyone being protected and mobilizing the public to take the initiative."

Ufelle also believes there will be a greater emphasis on public health by government agencies, who will start employing more public health professionals for the remainder of the pandemic and beyond.

"I believe that after the pandemic, many county governments are going to emphasize or restructure public health," Ufelle said. "One of the major things that people realized with this pandemic is because there is no plan in place (to educate the public) you're having governors or mayors sharing (health) information but they shouldn't be the ones driving the message. It should be driven by local public health officials."

Public health as a profession also applies to the private sector, according to Ufelle, as he anticipates large companies, especially airlines, will start employing greater numbers of public health professionals to improve the health and safety of customers and employees.

"Nobody thought that a virus could cause this much harm," Ufelle said. "People are going to start to relying more on public health officials to advise them, because the economy is hurting and governments are going to make public health more of a priority."

SRU offers a master's degree in public health with two concentrations: health promotion and wellness, and environmental and occupational health. For more information about visit the SRU Public Health Department webpage.

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