November 16, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 59 — COVID-19 vaccines, and environmental protection

With over one million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, pharmaceutical companies are racing to develop vaccines to help bring an end to the ongoing pandemic. But once a vaccine is approved and hits the market, will people be willing to get it? To help reach “herd immunity” safely, Katharine Head, an associate professor in the department of communication studies in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, and a team of researchers are identifying the best ways to educate the public about the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine. Having focused, targeted communication about vaccination has never been more important, Head says. While vaccination is a private, individual decision, it has public health ramifications, and public health experts agree that the launch of a COVID-19 vaccine will be the beginning of the end of the pandemic, something we can all get behind. Head and her team launched a survey in May to gauge people’s perceptions of a potential vaccine. The researchers found that people generally had high intentions to receive a vaccine when it becomes available and those intentions increased significantly when their healthcare provider recommended the vaccine to them. Participants with lower levels of education were associated with lower intent to receive a vaccine, while variables such as increased perceptions of severity or worry were associated with higher intent to get the vaccine. Head says understanding how best to tailor communication to specific audiences will assist public health departments, healthcare systems, colleges and others in crafting messages and sharing available resources on vaccine promotion that appeal to their stakeholders and provide answers to questions about safety and effectiveness. Additionally, Head says, there are likely to be multiple COVID-19 vaccines approved and hitting the market around the same time. Because of this, she says, it will be important for people to talk to trusted healthcare providers who can help navigate confusion over multiple options.

In other news, as Americans prepare for the transition of a new president, many areeager to see what changes president-elect Joe Biden will bring. Janet McCabe, IU law professor and director at IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute, says one of the biggest potential changes is likely around environmental protection. McCabe says the Trump administration has waged an all-out assault on the nation’s environmental laws for the past four years. Decisions at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and other agencies have weakened the guardrails that protect our nation’s air, water and public lands, and have sided with industry rather than advocating for public health and the environment, she says. As part of his presidency, Trump used many tools to weaken environmental protection, such as issuing an executive order to waive environmental review for infrastructure projects like pipelines and highways, McCabe says. Additionally, the EPA has revised regulations to drastically scale back protection for wetlands, streams and marshes. McCabe says the administration also changed agency procedures to limit the use of science and upended a longstanding approach to valuing the costs and benefits of environmental rules. McCabe says she expects the Biden administration will quickly signal to the nation everyone is worthy of the protections afforded by the nation’s environmental laws especially communities that bear an unfair share of the public health burden of pollution. But with a closely divided Senate, McCabe says Biden will need to rely primarily on executive actions and must-pass legislative measures like the federal budget and the Farm Bill to further his environmental agenda. Policies that require big investments, such as Biden’s pledge to invest $400 billion over 10 years in clean energy research and innovation, can make a big difference, McCabe says, but may be challenging to advance. Coupling clean technology with infrastructure and jobs programs to build back better is likely to have broad appeal, she says. McCabe expects officials will move quickly to restore the role of science in agency decision-making and withdraw Trump-era policies that make it harder to adopt protective regulations. A Biden EPA will end efforts to impede states like California that are moving ahead under their own authority to protect their residents, and will make clear to career staff that their expertise is valued, she says. While many of these actions can be done quickly, McCabe says Biden’s biggest challenge will be deciding what to prioritize as his administration will not be able to do (or undo) everything.