Rolling out the COVID-19 vaccines (Part 3): the need for open, transparent and tailored communication

The Bottom Line

  • Research evidence shows that vaccine hesitancy is universal across countries.

  • Vaccine acceptance and uptake can be increased by using three types of strategies: 1) creating an enabling environment; 2) harnessing social influences; and 3) increasing motivation.

  • Communication interventions should be tailored to mitigate inequalities, particularly to Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups who have higher rates of infection, morbidity and mortality, as well as unvaccinated or under-vaccinated populations.

The COVID-19 vaccination campaign has been underway in the country and elsewhere in the world for the past few weeks. Although there are still challenges in terms of vaccine supply, decision-makers are also facing the challenge of communicating to the public about their vaccination plans, and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. This is particularly challenging in a context where new information (and misinformation) about COVID-19 vaccines is emerging on a daily basis. This can exacerbate vaccine hesitancy or confidence among the public, which may interfere with the achievement of vaccination targets. Indeed, it is estimated that 60-80% of the world’s population must be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” for COVID-19.(1, 2) According to the Mayo Clinic, herd immunity (sometimes referred as community immunity) occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, which makes the spread of the disease from person to person unlikely.

To help Canadian decision-makers as they respond to unprecedented challenges related to the pandemic, the COVID-19 Evidence Network to support Decision-making (COVID-END) has reviewed what is known about the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.(3) This blog post is the third in a series which examine evidence and experiences from Canada and other countries about the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. It focuses on the set of challenges facing decision-makers when communicating vaccine-allocation plans and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

What the research tells us

Decision-makers are facing many challenges related to communicating to the public about their vaccination plans, and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.(3) They must plan carefully for the following:

Who should be the target of the communication plans?
- the general public
- high-risk groups (for example, health workers, older and frail adults, those with chronic conditions, essential workers)
- individuals who are hesitant about (or opposed to) vaccination 

How should they communicate with them?
- who should communicate the information (for example, healthcare workers, research experts, teachers, business leaders, government leaders, community leaders, or the media)
- how often should we communicate with them (for example, every day or week)
- for how long
- what method should they use to communicate (for example, social media platforms, text messages, emails, telephone calls, radio, television, face-to-face by video, face-to-face in person) 

What information should be communicated to them?
- data and evidence about safety and effectiveness in terms of both protection against COVID-19 (including duration of protection) and protection against transmission (and other factors that may contribute to vaccine acceptance and hesitancy)
- information about new types of vaccines, current vaccine options (for example, the number of vaccines available in the country, number of doses required of any given vaccine) and prioritized populations
- information (for health workers) about vaccine-administration protocols
- information to address myths and misinformation about vaccines
- information about the anticipated timing of when all those who want a vaccine will have been vaccinated 

Research evidence shows that vaccine hesitancy is universal across countries. A medium-quality rapid review revealed that such hesitancy typically manifested in the preference to wait to be vaccinated or to reject vaccination altogether. The most cited reasons for vaccine hesitancy or refusal included fear of side effects, safety, and effectiveness, as well as the expedited development of the COVID-19 vaccines, perceived political interference, and misinformation.

But many organizations have produced evidence-informed guidelines to help decision-makers in their communication efforts. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) produced a guideline providing insights about factors that may help vaccine acceptance and uptake. This guideline is based on behavioural research (the types of research examining when and why individuals behave as they do) that has shown that vaccine acceptance and uptake can be increased by using three types of strategies:

creating an enabling environment – making vaccination easy, quick and affordable

harnessing social influences – especially from people who are particularly trusted by and identified with members of relevant communities

increasing motivation – through open and transparent communication about uncertainty and risks, as well as the safety and benefits of vaccination

The WHO guideline also emphasized that communication interventions should be tailored to mitigate inequalities, particularly to Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups who have higher rates of infection, morbidity and mortality, as well as unvaccinated or under-vaccinated populations.

A medium-quality rapid review also indicated that communication of reliable, frequent, and tailored information about vaccines should be shared with community members through multiple platforms (for example, social media, traditional media, and providers). The review also highlighted that providers must be educated about vaccines and provided with appropriate training to increase provider vaccine recommendations to patients.

Moving forward

As the pandemic evolves, communication plans may be adapted to respond to new events (for example, new variants, new data and evidence about the effectiveness of vaccines against new variants, or possible cases of adverse events following vaccination). In the fourth part of our series, we will examine the challenges of administering COVID-19 vaccines in ways that optimize timely uptake.


Get the latest content first. Sign up for free weekly email alerts.
Author Details


  1. U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ Interim Recommendation for Use of Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine — United States, 20 December 2020.

  2. Wang W, Wu Q, Yang J, Dong K, Chen X, Bai X, Chen X, Chen Z, Viboud C, Ajelli M, Yu H. Global, regional, and national estimates of target population sizes for Covid-19 vaccination: Descriptive study. British Medical Journal. 2020;371:m4704.

  3. Wilson MG, Bain T, Wang Q, Al-Khateeb S, Bhuiya A, Alam S, DeMaio P, Gauvin FP, Ahmad A, Drakos A, Sharma K, Whitelaw S, Lavis JN. COVID-19 living evidence profile #1 (version 1.5): What is known about anticipated COVID-19 vaccine roll-out elements? Hamilton: McMaster Health Forum, 16 March 2021. 

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

Want the latest in aging research? Sign up for our email alerts.

Support for the Portal is largely provided by the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative. AGE-WELL is a contributing partner. Help us to continue to provide direct and easy access to evidence-based information on health and social conditions to help you stay healthy, active and engaged as you grow older. Donate Today.

© 2012 - 2020 McMaster University | 1280 Main Street West | Hamilton, Ontario L8S4L8 | +1 905-525-9140 | Terms Of Use