Technology

How to Reach the Unvaccinated

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What does it take to get credible information about the coronavirus vaccine, and the vaccines themselves, to more people?

My colleague Sheera Frenkel spoke to experts and followed a community group as it went door to door in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Northern California to understand the reasons behind the low vaccination rates for Black and Hispanic Americans compared with non-Hispanic white people.

What Sheera found, as she detailed in an article on Wednesday, was how online vaccine myths reinforce people’s fears and the ways that personal outreach and easier access to doses can make a big difference.

Shira: What surprised you from your reporting?

Sheera: One question I was trying to answer was whether the incorrect narratives floating around online about the vaccines — that they change people’s DNA or are a means of government control — were reaching Black and Hispanic communities and other people of color in the real world. I heard false information like that firsthand. It was eye opening.

The other surprise was how effective it was for someone to stand on a person’s doorstep and talk about their own experience getting a coronavirus vaccine and answer questions. The outreach group talked to each household for half an hour or longer sometimes. That may make more of a difference than any online health campaign ever could.

But it’s laborious to go door to door. Can reliable information ever travel as far and fast as misinformation?

Internet platforms amplify misinformation, and countering it isn’t simple. It takes more than a celebrity posting a vaccine selfie on Instagram.

Are we overstating the impact of vaccine hesitancy? The pediatrician Rhea Boyd recently wrote in our Opinion section that the primary barrier to Covid-19 vaccinations among Black Americans is a lack of access, not wariness about getting the shot.

It’s both.

Two things struck me from my reporting. First, false vaccine information is persuasive because it builds on something that people know to be true: The medical community has mistreated people of color, and the bias continues. And second, vaccine hesitancy is different in each community.

That makes reaching Black Americans different than reaching new immigrants who are reading articles in Vietnamese or Chinese that make them concerned about vaccine safety. It’s an opportunity for community leaders to address what’s keeping people who trust them from getting vaccinated.

You’ve written about Russian propaganda in Latin America that fanned concerns about European and American coronavirus vaccines. Is that also reaching people in the United States?

Yes. Two Russian state-backed media networks, Sputnik and Russia Today, have among the most popular Spanish-language Facebook pages in the world. Their news reaches Spanish speakers in the United States.

I heard people ask in my reporting, Why should they get an American vaccine when the Russian one is better? (Those articles tend to cite real statistics but in misleading contexts.) I asked one man I met, George Rodriguez, where he had read that, and we figured out that it was from one of those Russian news sites.

What has been effective at increasing the coronavirus vaccination rates among Black and Latino Americans?

It seems effective to hold walk-in vaccination clinics. People can show up, ask questions they have and get a shot.

What about Republicans? Surveys show that they are among the wariest Americans about coronavirus vaccines.

There have been concerns among some Republicans that people will be forced to get vaccinated, but that isn’t happening.

It’s clear that among Republicans and other groups with vaccine hesitancy, once we know more people who are getting vaccinated, we’re more willing to do it, too.

How do you see this moving forward?

In just the last few weeks, I’ve gotten more optimistic about closing the vaccination gap. There have been huge strides in reaching people, getting those walk-in vaccination clinics open or taking vaccines to people, and addressing people’s concerns.

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It’s worth paying attention when China, the United States and Europe are all seeking some measure of technology independence.

My colleagues Paul Mozur and Steven Lee Myers wrote on Wednesday about Chinese government officials’ urgency to reduce their country’s reliance on foreign technology — including high-end computer chips and artificial intelligence software.

China has long been a country where homegrown technology rules. But increasingly, Paul and Steven wrote, China’s “leaders are accelerating plans to go it alone.”

The United States is definitely not China. But as I wrote in a recent newsletter, there is a growing consensus among American policymakers and corporate executives that the United States needs to manufacture or develop more essential technology, including computer chips and complex batteries, within the country’s borders. The European Union also is aiming for this.

The zeal for technology autarky underscores two points. First, more technologies are becoming — like barrels of oil or emergency vaccine stockpiles — something that countries consider important to national security. And second, the line between pragmatism and nationalism gets fuzzier by the day.

It’s probably impossible for any country to become fully independent in technology, as Paul and Steven wrote. More self-reliance may still be worthwhile, but it’s tricky to know when a desire for more homegrown technology is necessary, and when it’s a waste of money, self-defeating or even dangerous.

The European Union and the United States want to throw taxpayer money at building computer chip factories, and that could be helpful. Or that may prove a waste of money if the factories sit idle.

And desires for more American tech independence or “beating” China in tech areas like A.I. or 5G can sometimes be a justification for U.S. policymakers and companies to plow more money into surveillance technology.

Tech self-sufficiency is a goal that sounds completely sensible. The devil, as always, is in the details.


  • Governments wrestling the internet to the ground, example infinity: The Russian government said that it was slowing down the speed of Twitter in the country and accused the company of failing to effectively remove posts containing illegal content. My colleagues Anton Troianovski and Andrew E. Kramer wrote that Russia “is escalating its offensive against American internet companies that have long provided a haven for freedom of expression.”

  • DO NOT mess with the library: A Washington Post columnist found that, unlike other big book publishers, Amazon won’t sell e-books and audiobooks that the company publishes to public libraries. “The case of the vanishing e-books shows how tech monopolies hurt us not just as consumers, but as citizens,” he wrote.

  • Why watching TV requires a Ph.D.: Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry … well, good luck trying to find it online in a month. Ed Lee and Nicole Sperling show how new TV has replicated the messy business dealings of old TV, and made it harder for us.

I have been watching a British nature series and discovered that I love the native red squirrels in that country. Look at their adorable tufted ears!


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