Data-driven Communication about COVID-19 Vaccines in West Virginia

West Virginia is known for its natural beauty and hometown feel, inspiring songs like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. It was also ranked by the Kaiser Family Foundation  as the state with the highest portion of adults 18 years and older at higher risk of severe COVID-19 diseaseexternal icon.

With 1.8 million people spread out across the mountainous, rural terrain, state public health leaders knew they faced multiple challenges when they began planning COVID-19 vaccination efforts in summer 2020. They not only had to distribute vaccines to small communities across the state, but there was also a need to educate West Virginians about the vaccines.

Science Drives Communication and Positive Social Change

West Virginia’s leadership knew they had to deliver clear, consistent, and scientifically sound information about the COVID-19 vaccines to build residents’ knowledge and confidence. Their communication efforts had to resonate with West Virginians and had to be integrated into every aspect of the vaccination program. State leadership developed a cross-agency and cross-organization communications team, which included the West Virginia University Public Interest Communication Research Laboratory (WVU PIC Labexternal icon), to ensure their vaccination plans and activities were grounded in social, behavioral, and communication science principles.

The WVU PIC Lab is the first program of its kind in the nation. It is dedicated to conducting social science for social change by informing and evaluating strategic communication efforts in the public interest.

“Using social science for social good lets us understand the social and cultural realities and lived experiences of various West Virginians, so we can meet their needs and give them the fact-based information they want and need,” said Julia Daisy Fraustino, PhD, founding director of the WVU PIC Lab and risk/crisis communication scientist.

In late November and early December of 2020, the WVU PIC Lab team, led by Fraustino and faculty research affiliates Geah Pressgrove, PhD, and Daniel Totzkay, PhD, administered a statewide survey to learn about West Virginians’ health beliefs, risk perceptions, and attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccination.

“We wanted data to show where West Virginians stood in terms of vaccine confidence. We also wanted data to inform how our communities could make informed decisions to choose COVID-19 vaccination for themselves and their families as limited supplies would allow.”

Early Vaccination Success

The success of West Virginia’s preparation was evident in their early vaccination rates. They were able to quickly reach the health care workers, those who were first recommended to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, and most of the “movable middle” in their state. The impact of the WVU PIC Lab was evident in the state’s messages and communication material. They brought a community and personal dimension to West Virginia’s all-of-state multiple partner approach to help ensure efficient and equitable vaccine distribution.

The data gathered enabled the team to address West Virginians’ initial perceived barriers and motivations to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine by co-creating messages that:

  • Resonated with West Virginians’ self-interest,
  • Were delivered through channels they preferred,
  • Were presented by messengers they identified as credible and trustworthy,
  • Advanced health equity, and
  • Demonstrated culturally responsive language and verbal/visual inclusivity.

COVID-19 vaccine messages, strategy, and tactics were directed toward West Virginians and tailored to priority populations within the state. For example, the PIC Lab’s research revealed that West Virginians were most likely to get vaccinated if they knew the vaccines were safe, effective, and trusted by top public health officials in the state. Therefore, West Virginia’s messaging provides evidence-based answers to those concerns, focusing primarily on vaccine safety and effectiveness delivered by trusted local spokespersons who share their authentic and expert viewpoints and experiences.

Beyond safety and effectiveness, many West Virginians were motivated to get vaccinated to protect themselves while others were moved by broader community concerns. Together, these findings informed the campaign slogan “Community immunity begins with me,” to emphasize both the individual and community.

“An essential part of translating social science data and applying the literature in risk and health communication has been practical implementation through the Center for Rural Health Development,” Fraustino said. “We work with the West Virginia-based marketing firm Digital Relativity to directly translate the PIC Lab’s findings into campaign materials, distributed through vaccinate.wv.govexternal icon, our Social Press Kitexternal icon, and other channels.”

The communications team works closely with statewide associations to develop materials for specific occupations or populations. They work with local partners to create and distribute communication toolkits that can be used at the local level by healthcare providers, public health professionals, faith communities, and community groups.

The (Country) Roads Ahead

Building on their initial work, the WVA PIC Lab team conducted their second statewide survey. Preliminary results from this survey show that West Virginians who have seen the campaign materials were more likely to report intentions to get a COVID-19 vaccination. With new variants, expanding vaccination recommendations, and increased vaccine supply and access, the new survey provides data to help drive efforts to reach more West Virginians to increase COVID-19 vaccine knowledge, confidence, and demand.

WVU PIC Lab’s analysis and evaluation, which is a primary component of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Program, is funded through a grant from CDC and administered by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) through the Center for Rural Health Development (DHHR), Inc., the lead agency of the West Virginia Immunization Network.

For more information about West Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccine communication program, visit vaccinate.wv.govexternal icon, or follow #CommunityImmunityWV on social media.

Page last reviewed: September 30, 2021