As COVID-19 vaccines become available, while cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus continue, health officials are trying a new approach to educate people on the pandemic.
The statewide “Do Right, Right Now” campaign evolved out of a Douglas County initiative to bring different health care providers, media and community leaders together on a single call to action.
Though the recommendations are the same, wash your hands, socially distance, avoiding large gatherings, Douglas County Health Director Dr. Adi Pour said this strategy is about building cohesion and trust.
“We thought this was an opportunity,” she said. “A pandemic only comes after so many years, we really wanted to get everyone together.”
The partnership allows the message to travel further, Pour said. Rather than coming from elected officials and local health department leaders, it’s being shared by community leaders who the county’s partnered with throughout Omaha.
The program, which started in November, is moving into its next phase as vaccines become more available to a wider swath of people.
Showing people the vaccine is safe and accessible will be a primary focus. But Pour’s confident their messaging won’t have to swing too many doubters. Pour said she and other officials have not seriously considered the possibility that not enough people will get the vaccine in Douglas County. Instead she’s trusting that 60% to 70% of the community will get vaccinated, reaching a level of immunity that would allow life to start returning to normal.
“My glass is always half full,” she said. “I don’t even want to think about [people not getting the vaccine].”
However in December, 39% of people polled by the Pew Research Center said they would either probably or definitely not get the vaccine, which is the only clinical protection against COVID-19. That number is down from a few months ago, and Pour said she believes people seeing others getting the vaccine is having an effect.
“I think what you’re seeing, and hearing on the national level too, is the more people see people getting vaccinated, the more they trust the vaccine,” Pour said.
Pour is also still concerned with present levels of COVID-19 in Douglas County which is still infecting, hospitalizing and killing people every day.
That’s why the campaign and it’s urgent, clear and uniform messaging is so important. While a vaccine is just on the horizon, many people will still have to wait months to get it. The state has released a rough timeline of the vaccine rollout that would put vaccine availability for the general public in May. But Pour said so much of the plan is fluid due to how quickly the vaccines can be produced and how efficiently they can be administered.
“You’re kind of dependent on this and as you know we don’t want to overpromise,” she said. “Because the moment you say a date everybody says, ‘Where is it, where is it?’ and we have no control over these things.”
As the Douglas County Health Department waits to receive more vaccines, staff is still able to prepare for their arrival. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted harsh racial disparities in who catches and dies from the virus, particularly among Black and brown communities. As the vaccine becomes more available, Pour said the Douglas County Health Departments equity committee is tasked with finding ways the same disparities don’t play out again.
One of the solutions is bringing the vaccines straight to people.
“We want to take away all the barriers that people have,” she said. “There are actually some plans that we may go into the neighborhoods. Instead of having people come to us, we are going to bring the vaccine into the neighborhoods to make it easier for everyone to get it.”
The key to all of this is trust.
In a pandemic that’s challenged government leaders and in some cases pitted them against each other, knowing who’s in charge has been a constant issue.
Pour herself faced pressure from the state when she tried to institute a mask mandate in July. She backed down after the state threatened her with legal action, pushing the Omaha City Council to pass the mandate. When COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in November, health care workers begged for stricter directed health measures that never came.
Pour said she’s made mistakes and learned along the way. But making public health decisions carries a variety of consequences which the governor, who ultimately issues directed health measures, has to consider. But the state has still been very receptive to changes she and other health officials want to make.
“The community, I think, knows that I have their best [interest] in mind when I make a recommendation or when I talk about our cases,” she said. “So no, I don’t worry about it. I don’t have time to worry about it.”
The number one message Pour and other public health officials want people to know is that the pandemic is not over just because vaccinations have started. Frequent hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing will all be a part of our lives for the months to come.
“Nothing has changed there,” she said. “What has changed is that we’re seeing a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. But we’re still in the tunnel, we still need to do all those things.”