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Joe Biden’s ready to sell America on Covid vaccines. There’s just one problem.

POLITICO logo POLITICO 2/7/2021 By Adam Cancryn
Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine sit ready to be administered at a mass Covid-19 vaccination event on Jan. 30, 2021, in Denver, Colo. © Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine sit ready to be administered at a mass Covid-19 vaccination event on Jan. 30, 2021, in Denver, Colo.

President Joe Biden is planning a massive campaign to sell Americans on getting a coronavirus vaccine — just as soon as there are enough shots for everyone.

The limited vaccine supply has curbed the Biden administration’s early ambitions for a national effort to build enthusiasm for shots that can help smother the pandemic. Much of an envisioned $1 billion public awareness campaign remains on hold, with health officials figuring it makes little sense to make their pitch when so few Americans can get vaccinated. The U.S. is not expected to make vaccines widely available to the public until the spring.

“We have to have product available before we go out and encourage people to seek it,” said Mark Weber, the federal health official charged with crafting the government’s Covid-19 advertising campaign. “We’re not there yet.”

Even as the U.S. struggles to keep up with early demand for the shots, the White House believes a messaging blitz is necessary to overcome significant amounts of vaccine hesitancy — enough to potentially prevent the country from quickly reaching herd immunity.

Yet Biden’s health team instead has spent its first weeks pleading for patience as vaccine manufacturing slowly ramps up, delaying a concerted effort to reach those unsure of whether to get a shot or how. The distribution process so far has been rocky, with states complaining of severe shortfalls and difficulties tracking where the shots are going. Glitchy sign-up systems and canceled appointments have also generated early frustrations.

The Biden administration has sought to strike a balance between promoting the vaccines as a safe path out of the pandemic and cautioning a wide swath of Americans against expecting shots for themselves any time soon.

In press conferences and television appearances, Biden’s Covid-19 response team has advanced a tightly scripted message — focusing on the science behind vaccines developed in record time, while also stressing the challenge they face in boosting production and expanding distribution before the country is likely to see any measurable progress toward ending the pandemic.

“This will not be easy,” said White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients during a briefing this week. “Vaccinating everyone in America is one of the greatest operational challenges we’ve ever faced.”

The White House has yet to launch a major national ad campaign promoting the vaccination drive, and regional and local outreach plans remain a work in progress. A promised Covid-19 Vaccinations Collaborative dedicated to sharing information and best practices with states, localities and tribes hasn’t yet gone public.

There have not yet been new messaging initiatives at the Department of Health and Human Services since the Trump administration last fall put Weber in charge of a $250 million ad campaign — after scrapping a highly scrutinized celebrity-heavy component aimed at “defeating despair” over the pandemic.

And while the president and first lady Jill Biden will appear in a taped message before Sunday’s Super Bowl, the spot is expected to focus largely on the work of frontline health care professionals. The most explicit effort to promote Covid vaccines during the big game will instead come from outside the government, with the nonprofit Ad Council and the COVID Collaborative initiative airing a 90-second commercial that was bankrolled by Budweiser.

“We’re very cognizant of the supply and demand issue, but we also know we have to get out there with an educational effort,” said John Bridgeland, a former senior official in the George W. Bush White House and co-founder of the COVID Collaborative, an independent initiative created to help states and localities coordinate their pandemic responses.


Gallery: How Biden plans to fight the pandemic: 100 million shots, 100 new vaccine centers, and lots more testing and PPE (Business Insider)

“We’re trying to push the knowledge and understanding and boost confidence, so that when it is available, you’ve had a lot of access to a lot of messaging,” added Bridgeland, who has been in regular touch with the Biden team on Covid messaging.

Nearly 30 million Americans have received at least one dose of either the available two-shot regimens, with the vaccination pace gradually picking up to nearly 1.3 million shots per day. The administration is increasing vaccine shipments to states by about 20 percent over the next three weeks, but federal officials have limited tools to ramp up supply.

How fast the administration can build up its supply will determine the timing of its awareness campaign, while officials remain wary of launching a major vaccine push before it can handle the expected surge.

In a sharp departure from the Trump era, Biden officials and others involved in the discussions said the administration is eager to play a central role in coordinating pandemic messaging — and that its deliberate start has been driven largely out of a sense of caution.

While former President Donald Trump often got ahead of his own government’s formal policy announcements, exaggerated the effectiveness of his pandemic response and cast the crisis in partisan terms, the Biden team has privately emphasized restraint — wary of making missteps that could end up damaging public confidence.

That danger came into particular focus after both Trump and Biden officials in early January signaled plans to expand vaccine access to a broader population of older Americans, only to have demand for the shots far outstrip the available supply.

“Pre-inauguration, people didn’t seem to have that concern because the demand was still so low, or low enough,” said Loyce Pace, who served on the Biden transition’s Covid-19 advisory board and is executive director of the Global Health Council. “Suddenly, poof, a lot more people seem to really want this vaccine.”

Biden’s Covid-19 team has also taken a delicate approach to the politics of the pandemic, and discussed extensively how to reach communities of color and other underserved areas where people may be more reluctant to get a shot or have a more difficult time accessing one. Initial data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week showed that Blacks and Latinos are being vaccinated at far lower rates than whites.

Among the ideas that officials have floated is the need to enlist a variety of so-called ambassadors to take the government’s vaccine message into specific communities where they have credibility, three people familiar with the discussions said. The administration is also looking to deploy Vice President Kamala Harris to encourage vaccinations in communities of color.

Other ambassadors could include prominent community members, celebrities, athletes or business leaders – though one person familiar with the concept said that research so far shows doctors and nurses are the most effective spokespeople, especially when it comes to reaching people of color.

“We’re talking about people’s feelings of the safety and efficacy of these vaccines,” said Cameron Webb, the White House’s senior policy adviser for Covid-19 equity. “And I think there’s a lot of work to do to build that trust – that’s the idea of trusted messengers giving trusted messages.”

Health officials, meanwhile, have explored using government programs to reach specific audiences, Weber said. That could include recruiting staffers running Head Start programs, which serve low-income families with young children, to circulate information on the vaccination effort.

The pandemic awareness plan initiated by the Trump administration still has at least $115 million of its initial $250 million allocation left over. The vast majority of the remaining dollars will eventually be devoted to ad campaigns promoting vaccinations as well as other public health measures.

The Biden administration’s ambitions for a broader campaign may be limited by Congress, which would need to appropriate much of the $1 billion that Biden officials originally envisioned as part of the next Covid relief bill.

In the interim, the White House has worked closely with the COVID Collaborative and the Ad Council, which separately raised $50 million for their own vaccine awareness initiative and have met regularly with Biden officials to refine its message.

But Biden officials and health experts said that within the administration, the overriding focus early on has been simply getting as much vaccine produced as possible – and betting the success of the response will snowball from there.

“The vaccine has got to be available, people have got to get access to it, and then you bring your advertising around that appeal,” Weber said. “Get that vaccine out there, and then we’ll be ready to roll.”

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