Authors: Ina Charkviani, Journalist and Communications Specialist, Curatio International Foundation and Lela Sturua, Head of Non-Communicable Disease Department, National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) of Georgia
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake the globe, signs of hope are beginning to emerge as countries start implementing COVID-19 vaccination campaigns. Early evidence tells us the welcoming news that these vaccines are driving down both new cases and mortality rates. However, challenges related to access, equity, and hesitancy remain.
Georgia launched the COVID-19 vaccination program with the goal of vaccinating at least 60% of its adult population. Key stakeholders in the country, involving more than 100 experts and civil society representatives, worked with the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDCPH) to develop the country’s National Vaccine Deployment Plan (NVDP), which was approved in January.
As laid out in the NVDP, the vaccination process is divided into three phases. The first phase involves vaccinating the first 14% of the population and covers health care workers, beneficiaries of long-term care facilities, their staff, people over the age of 65, and other high risk-groups. The second phase will cover around 26% of the population, including the age group 55-64 and people with chronic diseases aged 18-54. During the third phase, around 60% of the total adult population will be covered.
Experts recognize that they will have to grapple with the rising issue of vaccine hesitancy in order to reach the goals set out in their NVDP. Results of a public opinion survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in December 2020 showed extremely low demand for the COVID-19 vaccine throughout the country, and demand decreased even further in February. When asked “If the coronavirus vaccine were available, would you and your children be vaccinated?” only 35 % of respondents agreed that they would get the vaccine.
A key component of Georgia’s NVDP that aims to address these challenges is a vaccination communication campaign to boost public awareness and facilitate knowledge-based decision-making. The campaign prioritizes several activities, such as mobilizing influential speakers to support vaccination, strengthening social listening and public communication, providing risk groups with competent advice and informational materials, and conducting an informational meeting with the leaders of the Orthodox Church. The objectives of the campaign are to increase public awareness of the vaccine and its benefits, provide transparent information, and strengthen the media’s competence to ensure evidence-based, responsible and accurate reporting. Stakeholders hope these priority activities will lead to an increase in acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine .
Georgia received the first batch of COVID-19 doses in mid-March: 43,200 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine followed by 29,250 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, both of which were delivered through the COVAX facility. 100,000 doses of SINOPHARM also arrived in early April, though the use of SiNOPHARM will be delayed until it is authorized by the World Health Organization.
Unfortunately, Georgia encountered a number of challenges in the early stages of its introduction, which served to further shake public confidence in an already highly hesitant environment. There was widespread dissatisfaction about the delayed start of the vaccination program as well as the delayed communication campaign, which should have preceded introduction of the vaccine. The program launch coincided with the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine in a number of European countries as potential safety concerns were evaluated. Although the region has since resumed vaccination, there was some damage to the public perception of the vaccine . The Georgia vaccination program also received another shock when a nurse went into anaphylactic shock shortly after her vaccination – a case which is under investigation but has been widely reported in the media.
The communication campaign now faces a tremendous challenge as it attempts to restore public confidence in the vaccine. To ensure optimal trust and acceptance, communication efforts will be coordinated between numerous stakeholders, among them policy makers, civil society organizations, scientists, academicians, critical and negatively disposed groups, and business representatives. Through this network of champions, a continuous flow of information should be provided to relevant institutions and related public groups. The success of the communications campaign will determine the proportion of the population that will take part in the voluntary vaccination process as well as the pace of progress towards meeting the vaccination targets. Stakeholders are hopeful that the right communications campaign will increase the community’s willingness and readiness to end the pandemic.