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Vial of coronavirus vaccine
Coronavirus vaccines have proven very effective at preventing death or severe illness in most people who get the shots, but many people have resisted getting the shots, sometimes for political reasons.

Vaccine hesitancy

Photo by iStock and courtesy of Amy Bleakley

Health communication scholars at UD investigate attitudes, demographics

Think back to October and November of 2020. The COVID pandemic was raging in the United States, and although there were plenty of news reports about the apparently successful development and testing of vaccines, none had been approved or were available to the American public at that time.

Still, public health officials were preparing for the vaccination process in the U.S., including considering how to best communicate and encourage immunization.

For the University of Delaware’s Amy Bleakley, this challenge seemed to fit with research she was already conducting under a grant from the National Institute on Aging, exploring ways to encourage more diverse groups to participate in studies of Alzheimer’s disease.

Prof. Amy Bleakley
Prof. Amy Bleakley focuses her research on health communication.

“This pandemic disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic communities and older adults,” said Bleakley, a professor of communication who focuses on health communication. “These are the exact groups we’re studying in the Alzheimer’s project.”

She and other health communication scholars at UD began researching how targeted and strategic messaging can cut through the confusion and misinformation about vaccines. The professors and graduate students investigated how age, education and attitudes influence behavior and affect public health during the pandemic. 

Bleakley and her colleagues’ research, specifically looking at vaccine hesitancy among demographic groups, was recently published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.  

They surveyed national samples of different demographic groups: Black, Hispanic, white, those age 18-49 and those 50 and older. They examined such questions as attitudes toward science, misperceptions about the COVID virus, perceptions of media bias and what is called normative pressure — whether people who are important to you think you should get the vaccine and whether people who are like you will get the vaccine.

National research from November 2020 showed that Black Americans said they were much less likely than whites to get the vaccine when it became available. Bleakley and her colleagues delved into other attitudes and factors in different groups, using a widely tested behavioral theory called Reasoned Action Approach (RAA), which examines underlying beliefs. 

The study found that many patterns were similar across groups, including the value an individual placed on science and whether they were receiving accurate information about COVID and the vaccine. Older adults in all groups were more susceptible to misinformation, for example.

“What we found is that attitudes are important across the board, including a person’s expectation of what will happen once they get the vaccine,” Bleakley said. “There weren’t as many differences among racial and ethnic groups as we had anticipated, especially among older adults.” 

People’s attitudes, she said, are very much tied to their identity — whether to a racial or ethnic group, a political party or other factors they consider important — and so are not easy to change. Messaging is important in the area of public health, but messaging alone isn’t enough, she said.

Bleakley called the published paper “a first step in figuring out how to create effective messaging.”

And the project is continuing, with researchers surveying participants every month and tracking their attitudes and their vaccination status. Other papers by various researchers in the department are in process as the monthly data is collected and analyzed with the help of graduate and undergraduate students.

“We have a huge amount of data coming in,” Bleakley said. “We’re lucky to have such an engaged group of students working on this.”

About the research project

The paper published in October is titled “Psychosocial Determinants of COVID-19 Vaccination Intention Among White, Black, and Hispanic Adults in the US.” Co-authors, with Bleakley, are Michael Hennessey, Erin Maloney, Dannagal G. Young, John Crowley and Kami Silk, all of the UD Department of Communication, and Jessica B. Langbaum of Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

The work was funded by a National Institute of Aging grant, “COVID-19 Spillover: How the COVID-19 information environment affects perceptions of scientific research and Alzheimer’s disease prevention efforts.”

The original grant was designed to find ways to increase participation, and especially diversity of participation, in brain health registries that feed into clinical studies of Alzheimer’s. The expanded grant also examines perceptions of COVID, including the monthly online surveys of participants, and will include a 12-month content analysis of news coverage of the pandemic. 

About health communication research at UD

Numerous other research projects have been conducted or are underway in the communication department, which has a developing specialization in health communication and is establishing a Center for Health Communication.

Projects by UD scholars include the following:

  • Research published this year in the Journal of Hate Studies examined which groups are more likely to carry anti-Asian biases, exacerbated by the pandemic, so that that messaging can more effectively counteract the xenophobia.

  • Last year, research published in the journal Health Communication used national survey results to identify which populations are most likely to take preventive actions against exposure to COVID-19 to understand why some take action while others ignore health recommendations.

  • Morgan Ellithorpe, an assistant professor who joined the communication faculty last fall, received a General University Research Grant to look at intentions of parents with children under 5 to vaccinate for COVID-19.

  • This November, postdoctoral researcher Erin Maloney presented her COVID-19 communication research at the National Communication Association Annual Convention in Seattle, Washington. Her paper was titled “High-Risk Populations, Television News Media, and Misperceptions about COVID-19: Informing the Creation of Enhanced Correctives.”

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