3 Things COVID-19 Vaccine Messaging Could Learn From Hurricane Forecasters

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The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season is upon as. After an initial burst in activity, we are currently in a lull, but forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are fully aware that the busiest part of the season is still over a month away. Unfortunately, there is no lull in COVID-19. Case numbers are starting to spike in the United States, and the lagging vaccination numbers are a significant reason for this trend. Misinformation, apathy, fear, and ignorance continue to hamper vaccine outreach. As an expert in a community (weather) that deals with risk messaging to the public, I see 3 things that COVID-19 vaccine messaging could learn from hurricane forecasters.

The first things is to have a clear message with all of the end possibilities. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center always give the full suite of threats associated with a potential landfalling storms (wind, storm surge, flooding, tornadoes). Unfortunately, the public often has a “mental model” of the main threat being the wind. In reality, water (surge and inland freshwater flooding) is the most deadly aspect of a hurricane. With the COVID-19 vaccine, it is my observation that many people perceive that the central function of the vaccine is only to prevent you from testing positive. According to the Mayo Clinic website, there are actually multiple functions of a vaccine:

  • To prevent you from getting the virus, becoming seriously ill, or dying.
  • To prevent further spread and replication of the virus.
  • To increase the number of people protected by the virus.

The vast majority of people being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 fall into the ranks of the unvaccinated. This is central message that seemed to have gotten lost early on and why you still see misguided statements like, “But person X got the vaccine and still tested positive.”

Another thing that the hurricane forecasters use is a “cone of uncertainty.” According to the NOAA website, “The cone represents the probable track of the center of a tropical cyclone, and is formed by enclosing the area swept out by a set of circles (not shown) along the forecast track (at 12, 24, 36 hours, etc).” The size of each circle represents two-thirds of historical official forecast errors over a 5-year sample fall within the circle.” While that can sound a bit confusing, it is basically trying to convey that there is understood uncertainty that must be accounted for in track forecasts. Vaccine makers were very clear about the percent effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines based on clinical trials. None of them were 100% so the “shock” that a vaccinated person can test positive is baffling to me. I would love to see more outreach that includes basic literacy on probability. In reality that is probably wishful thinking. From my own field, I see how often people misunderstand what “20% chance of rain” actually means.

A singular voice for messaging is also essential. During hurricanes, you may get information from your favorite TV station, App, or social media source. However, the root of all of their information is NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. As I previously wrote in Forbes, “The National Hurricane Center is a trusted source….” It is the antidote to hyperbole, conspiracy theories, and wishcasting. I personally see the CDC or Dr. Anthony Fauci in a similar light, but there are also numerous other sources and voices on vaccines so the public might become confused.

When the dust settles, I believe there are some things that the infectious disease community can learn from NOAA and the National Weather Service about centralized messaging of risks.

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