COVID-19 Vaccination Program

How Congress can kickstart COVID herd immunity

By Chairman Jim Martin

Originally published in The Hill 12/14/2020

Public health experts now know that two COVID-19 vaccines will likely receive authorization from the Food and Drug Administration by the end of month. What they do not know is how long it will take to reach herd immunity so that the country can regain some peace of mind!

Vaccines do not work unless enough people take them. In COVID’s case, experts predict that herd immunity will occur at around a 70 percent vaccination rate. Until the country hits that number, the virus will continue to find avenues to spread.

Recent public opinion polls have raised concern. Nearly half the country appears poised to either wait before getting vaccinated or never get vaccinated at all. If that were to happen, millions of American lives would remain at risk, and a nationwide re-opening could come months or even years later than expected.

Thankfully, a bipartisan coalition in Congress has a solution.

On Dec. 3, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John Thune (R-S.D.), and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), introduced the COVID-19 Vaccine Awareness Support Act of 2020 to fund a wide-reaching, science-driven public advocacy campaign that informs the public about the vaccine and the latest health and safety data surrounding it.

Few, if any, other legislative or executive branch remedies will work as effectively as this bill in boosting the country’s vaccination rate.

Most of the public does not reflexively resist vaccines (nearly 70 percent receive the flu shot); it just needs comfort and assurance before accepting each one. Congress created the COVID-19 Vaccine Awareness Support Act for this explicit purpose.

In this age of online disinformation, the public relies on their local newspapers, radio, and television stations for news now more than ever. Campaigns from the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that leverage those mediums to update the public on the latest vaccine news and updates would go a long way in influencing public perception and opinion.

Through this bill, the FDA and CDC could outline the vaccines’ effectiveness rates (Moderna’s is 95 percent), cost (free for most people), and safety (both vaccines made it through the traditional three trial stages of testing). Both agencies could also highlight public figures’ experiences with the vaccine, such as former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, all of whom have volunteered to receive it publicly to help instill public confidence and acceptance.

History has proven the utility of public health advocacy campaigns. Just look at the one the government began to underscore the risks of smoking. Quickly after the federal government initiated it in 1964, the rate of smoking in America dropped substantially, saving millions of lives. The CDC’s work on this initiative continues to this day. Its ad campaigns over the past decade have helped over 2 million Americans revisit their smoking habits.

Of course, herd immunity will not just benefit seniors and the ill; it will also protect the millions of workers and businesses struggling through the shutdown. The government will permanently re-open restaurants, mom and pop stores, movie theaters, and other public spaces for all to enjoy, perhaps leading to a full economic recovery by the end of next year.

Perhaps most importantly, reaching herd immunity will end the psychological damage that separation from loved ones has caused countless Americans. Zoom gathering will quickly come to an end and Americans can embrace their children and grandchildren again.

As the country enters the holiday season and looks forward to a new year, the reality of a vaccine means that the potential for returning to normalcy is just weeks away — but only if Americans get vaccinated.

Elected officials must do their part in ensuring information and treatments actually reach the public. By delivering targeted messages to tens of millions of Americans through local print, radio, and TV, The COVID-19 Vaccine Awareness Support Act of 2020 represents an ideal place to start.