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A Powerful Tool for Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy

Social sentiment analysis is helping local officials understand the views and concerns of their residents about COVID-19 vaccinations, giving them information they need to shape effective messaging strategies.

A woman wearing a facemask holding her right arm up at a 90-degree angle while making a fist with her hand.
When Newark highlighted hometown celebrity Queen Latifah receiving the Moderna vaccine last March, it increased positive sentiment about getting the shots.
(John Jones | For NJ Advance Medi/TNS)
Across America’s cities and states, few issues have generated as much intensity and consequence as how to respond to COVID-19, first concerning masking and more recently concerning vaccinations. These issues focus squarely on one of state and local leaders’ most important assets: their voice.

A recent research project involving 18 cities clearly showed that when elected officials combine the right words with good policies, they can influence public behaviors and produce healthier outcomes. But for leaders to use their voice effectively, they need to be informed by data that helps them understand the contexts of their residents — their attitudes and concerns. These issues and opportunities come together when local officials take on the challenges of vaccine hesitancy.

A Harvard Kennedy School webinar last week presented the findings of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded research that utilized social sentiment analysis as a public health tool to help local officials understand the consequences of their words and actions on vaccine hesitancy. The project, managed by the New York City consultancy Bennett Midland, incorporated the analysis of Zencity, a company that provides accessible sentiment analysis tools for local governments.

Through polling and analysis of social media, the RWJF initiative helped officials in the 18 participating cities understand the views of residents about COVID-19 vaccination and assisted them in fashioning policies and shaping their messaging. According to Bennett Midland President Sarah Graizbord, three important strategies evolved from the study:
  • Visibility: Strategies to improve vaccination efforts need consistent, clear and transparent messaging that directly addresses confusion and misinformation.
  • Relatability: Messengers are most effective when they are seen as part of the community, and the messages must convey the direct benefits of vaccination for individuals and their families.
  • Equity: Messaging and implementation strategies must recognize and address social determinants of health, including reducing barriers to access.

The results presented last week included insights from Mayors LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans and Ras Baraka of Newark, N.J. While there were some differences among cities, the analysis revealed that in general, Black and Hispanic residents were almost twice as likely as whites to harbor concerns about vaccine effectiveness and one-third more likely to distrust the health-care system. In addition, people of color expressed much more difficulty than whites with access issues including those involving registration for vaccinations.

Visibility makes a difference in overcoming hesitancy. The results showed public confusion over the vaccination process, vaccine side effects and eligibility while also revealing that mayors can play an important role in helping residents overcome this confusion. Newark’s sentiment data showed, for example, that Mayor Baraka’s Facebook Live events at key moments during the vaccine rollout process generated significant engagement from residents. City staff monitored comment sections and responded in real time to dispel misinformation about the vaccine.

Relatability makes a difference as well. The data helped officials understand the thinking and concerns of various populations. Engaging trusted local voices, including both family members and community leaders, can make a difference. Encouraging people who receive the vaccine to share an update or involving community leaders in public health advocacy can increase the numbers of those willing to be vaccinated. Across the cohort of cities, Black survey respondents expressed significantly higher levels of trust in public figures or admired athletes (44 percent) compared to white respondents (25 percent). When Newark highlighted hometown celebrity Queen Latifah receiving the vaccine, it increased positive sentiment about getting the shots.

In New Orleans, sentiment data generated multiple insights that could be used to produce more equitable health outcomes. Some of the information paralleled that from Newark and other cities: More Black than white residents identified the desire to protect family members as well as messages from community leaders as significant influences. In response, New Orleans expanded its work with community and religious leaders to amplify their influence.

Addressing the practical problems mentioned in social media also produced a course of action. Across many of the cities, the data confirmed that low-income communities were not aware of the availability of transportation assistance or the locations of pop-up vaccination sites. That discovery allowed mayors to specifically address those issues.

Younger residents acknowledged that their willingness to be vaccinated would be influenced by access to activities such as concerts and sporting events, and Mayor Cantrell responded by supporting enhanced access to local venues for those who have been vaccinated. New Orleans also has offered “shots for shots” events in which health providers partnered with bars and restaurants to provide participants with a free drink along with their vaccine. During the panel, both mayors also endorsed programs in which professional sports teams offer special seating and discounted or free tickets to vaccinated individuals, as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets and New York Yankees have done.

For cities desperate to get the pandemic behind them and return to pre-COVID normalcy, the project data also offered an eye-opening statistic: The number of individuals not yet vaccinated but who said they could be convinced was great enough, if replicated everywhere, to achieve herd immunity. By crafting and amplifying policies that are responsive to resident sentiment, mayors can produce material steps toward this public health milestone.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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