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By Jeff Forster

Once upon a time, a book called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary was a perennial bestseller. It was a self-help book for the intentionally nerdy (who, me?), promising to improve your academic performance, job skills and self-esteem by putting more words in your head. First published in 1942, it has sold millions of copies and remains in print.

Over the course of this pandemic, we have learned to appreciate the power of words to communicate, educate and motivate, as well as the power of words to confuse, disrupt and bamboozle. There are words that build confidence and words that sow doubt. May the best words win.

In the past year, we have learned some new words and phrases (“social distancing” comes to mind) and rediscovered familiar ones (toilet paper, hand sanitizer). Then there are the others, like zoom, which have taken on new meaning. Some verbiage comes and goes. When was the last time you heard “flattening the curve”?

Not surprisingly, “pandemic” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2020, following on the heels of “they” in 2019, “justice” in 2018 and “feminism” in 2017. Which brings us to Women’s History Month (March) and International Women’s Day (March 8), a celebration of the social, economic, political and cultural achievements of women.

In that spirit, we pay tribute to strong women of the pandemic era, including Kizzmekia Corbett, scientific lead for coronavirus vaccines at the National Institutes of Health; Rochelle Walensky, current director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Marcella Nunez-Smith, head of the White House Task Force on Health Equity; Janet Murguia, President and CEO of the Latino advocacy organization UnidosUS; and Lisa Sherman, President and CEO of the Ad Council, spearheading the national education campaign to build vaccine confidence.

We salute strong women everywhere, like Jordana Sacks, a family physician in Toronto, who arranged to be the vaccinator for her 98-year-old grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. And like Agnes Boisvert, a nurse in Idaho who offers a glimpse into the stark world of the ICU, where saving lives is “like trying to rake in a windstorm,” as well as the world outside her hospital doors, where townspeople are now burning masks.

I salute and thank my wife Cynthia and daughters Meredith and Hilary, role models and shining beacons for my own efforts in life, and countless other family, friends and colleagues who inspire. Strong women, strong men and, yes, strong children can guide us out of the tunnel we’re in to a sunnier place called herd immunity - which, with any luck will be the Merriam-Webster words of the year for 2021.

This week’s Haymarket Media Coronavirus Briefing is 3,506 words long and will take you nine minutes to read.

First, this just in:
Four out of five former Presidents and First Ladies have joined in a video message promoting COVID-19 vaccination. The Carters, Clintons, Bushes and Obamas all get their shots on camera, which represents a big shot in the arm for the Ad Council/COVID Collaborative education campaign.

A state of flux
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Across the country, states are rapidly expanding access to vaccines as supply picks up steam. Mask mandates are falling, restaurants are opening and people are gathering. This is either a spring thaw or the calm before the next storm.
  • You can take me out to the ballgame—or to a concert, amusement park or other outdoor venue in California—starting April 1, under a complex set of guidelines that use a color-coded tiering system to assess risk and limit capacity. The tiers, based on the number of COVID-19 cases and positive tests in each county, range from minimal risk (yellow) to moderate (orange), substantial (red) and widespread (purple). The overall scheme is called—what else?—a Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
  • On the Atlantic coast, arts, entertainment and other events venues in New York will be allowed to open at 33% capacity starting April 2, with a limit of 100 masked and socially distanced attendees indoors and 200 outdoors. That model won’t fly for Broadway, which is not anticipating reopening its doors before Labor Day. Actors Equity responded to the new policy with a helpful hint to the Governor: Get us vaccinated, please.
  • White House chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci says it’s too soon to reopen on a large scale. He suggests we wait until new cases in the U.S. dip below 10,000 a day, a sum we haven’t glimpsed since March 2020. The current seven-day average of daily cases is just over 62,000.
  • Headline news of the week is the first set of CDC guidelines allowing the fully vaccinated to mix, mingle and hug indoors, unmasked, with loved ones. Outdoors and in public, however, don’t lose the mask. This is one small step but not yet a giant leap for mankind. Before we walk, we must crawl. It beats standing still and sheltering in place.
  • To help reinforce its core messages, the CDC released data showing that COVID-19 cases and death rates slow down in areas with mask mandates but speed up in communities that allow indoor dining. Proper preventative measures are “increasingly important given the emergence of highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants in the United States.”
  • In starting us on the path back to a huggable society, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services took another healthy stride in that direction Wednesday by loosening restrictions on nursing home visits, allowing “responsible indoor visitation at all times and for all residents, regardless of vaccination status of the resident, or visitor.” Certain limitations apply, as they say in the fine print, but nursing home operators agree this is the “right thing to do.” The team from McKnight’s Long-Term Care News--Danielle Brown, Alicia Lasek, and James M. Berklan--are on it.
  • Also looking for specific guidance are home care workers and their clients, Joe Jancsurak notes in McKnight’s Home Care Daily, and individuals in assisted living and other senior communities, Lois A. Bowers reports in McKnight’s Senior Living. Meanwhile, family caregivers, many of whom are too young to qualify for a vaccination priority group, are waiting their opportunity to join the ranks of the vaccinated.
The Takeaway:
As things ease up, we can’t throw caution to the winds. That’s another memorable phrase from that memorable phrase-maker and role model, Mom.
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Winning hearts and minds—and arms
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CDC dashboard check at midweek: 62 million first shots and 33 million second shots have been administered and 24% of adults and 61% of seniors have had at least one shot. Meanwhile, 13% of adults and 31% of seniors are fully vaccinated. We’re kicking it into gear.
  • Civis Analytics is testing the effectiveness of various messages, and messengers, in persuading vaccine skeptics to roll up their sleeves. Natasha Bach has the story in PRWeek. The state government is using these insights in putting together a $10 million public awareness campaign in the hardest-hit communities.
  • Vaccine hesitancy is shrinking, according to Verywell Health’s latest sentiment tracker. The undecideds are 15%, down from 19% in mid-December, and those already vaccinated or agreeable to a jab is up from 56% to 63%. Possible reason for the shift: The number of people who personally know a vaccinated person has doubled in four weeks. There’s still a core of refusers that remains at 22%, however.
  • Todec, a Latino advocacy organization, is among those working hard to overcome vaccine hesitancy in farm workers and employees of meatpacking and poultry plants. One big obstacle: Fears that the vaccines contain a microchip that will help the government find and deport the undocumented.
  • Jane Brody, The New York Times’ personal health columnist since 1976, explains “Why I Overcame My Vaccine Hesitancy” at the age of 79.
  • Long-term care providers and legal experts are debating the merits of vaccine mandates for staff, reports Danielle Brown in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News and Amy Novotney in McKnight’s Senior Living. While most facilities would much prefer a strong showing of voluntary compliance, a few nursing homes have already made COVID-19 vaccination a requirement and are pleased with the results. Juniper Communities, with facilities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado, reports that 30 of its 1,300 employees have “self-terminated” as a result of the mandate.
  • Nearly two dozen states are considering bills to limit or forbid employer-based vaccination mandates, Novotney notes, but no such measures have been enacted. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that, with few exceptions, such mandates will pass muster. See Kimberly Bonvissuto’s succinct summary for more.
  • Teachers have gone to the head of the vaccination class now that President Biden has urged the states to get at least one shot into the arms of K-12 educators, school staff and childcare workers by the end of March. Lecia Bushak has details in MM+M. As with each such decision, the spirited debate over equity will continue until there is enough vaccine in circulation to take care of all comers.
  • Among the first to cry foul were, well, other educators—like United Faculty of Florida, representing 22,000 staff at 13 universities and 14 community colleges, who said, “This is NOT acceptable.”
  • Meanwhile, many rural Americans are stranded in vaccine deserts.
  • All those shots of people getting their shots on the TV news—not to mention images of giant syringes on social media sites—are not helping the needle-phobic one bit, Kaiser Health News observes. For the needlephobe’s view, see Hillel Hoffmann’s tell-all in Medical Bag.
  • A delayed injection-site reaction to Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine may be confused with a skin infection and should not be treated with antibiotics, physicians advise in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine. Alicia Lasek reports, with photos, in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.
The Takeaway:
On the highway to herd immunity, we need to be aware of the variants in our rearview mirror—and keep them behind us. As former CDC director Tom Frieden cautioned, “We’re not done yet. Covid is still with us. The variants are still a risk. You don’t declare victory in the third quarter.”
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The world beyond vaccines
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While vaccines are front and center in the national consciousness, we can’t overlook the need for better treatments for COVID-19—and the ripple effect the pandemic is having on healthcare in general.
  • A five-day course of ivermectin, a drug for treating parasitic infections in humans and other animals (including heartworm in your doggie), was tested in a recent clinical trial to see if it curbed the symptoms of mild COVID-19. It did not, Diana Ernst notes in MPR. The FDA cautions against the use of ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19, noting that some people have been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin meant for horses. Please don’t do this.
  • Klick Health has debuted “Rise Above COVID,” a campaign designed to help recruit a more diverse set of participants into the ACTIV-2 study. The trial is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and is investigating four agents for treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19. In MM+M, Lecia Bushak offers details around the outreach, now being piloted in Black-owned barbershops and salons.
  • Throughout the pandemic, much regular medical care has fallen by the wayside, and that’s dangerous. In Infectious Disease Advisor, Michele Meyer explains just how costly it can be when measured in immunizations missed, screenings postponed, medical visits canceled, prescriptions unfilled, diagnostic tests not done—and lives lost.
  • The American Cancer Society, with support from Genentech, has begun a campaign to restore rates of screening for breast, cervical, colorectal and lung cancer (and appropriate follow-up care) to pre-pandemic levels. The first meeting of a national consortium is scheduled for March 18 and a public education campaign will follow.
  • The pandemic is hampering the start of new clinical trials of oncology drugs, Leah Lawrence writes in Cancer Therapy Advisor.
  • In The Clinical Advisor, Michele Lampariello reports on a panel discussion, hosted by Physicians for Human Rights, exploring pandemic-fueled burnout in healthcare professionals. It has heightened the risk for clinical depression, suicidal thoughts and substance use, among other dire outcomes.
  • The mental health of professionals on the front lines of COVID-19 care may actually get worse before it gets better, Kimberly Marselas notes in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.
  • Pregnant women are at increased risk for anxiety and depression during a lockdown and their mental health status should be evaluated and properly addressed, Jessica Nye reports in Psychiatry Advisor.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association have issued a white paper whose title speaks eloquently for itself: Mental and Behavioral Health in Children: A Crisis Made Worse by the Pandemic. The organizations have also launched an awareness initiative in an effort to draw additional resources to this pandemic within a pandemic.
  • From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, Walgreens has “aced the pandemic,” Larry Dobrow reports in MM+M, not just by pivoting to curbside pickup but also by offering financial assistance to customers in need and taking steps to ensure the safety and well-being of its workers. Dobrow’s interview with Walgreens CSR exec Alain Turenne shows just how much the role has evolved.
The Takeaway:
When we look back on 2021 we’ll consider not just how well we handled the pandemic but also how we took care of everything else under the healthcare sun.
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BYOB: BeYond Our Borders
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While a few countries may be hitting their stride on vaccination rollout—after potable early stumbles—much of the rest of the world is hardly out of the starting blocks.
  • The global COVAX program, designed to help correct that yawning disparity, delivered its first doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire and has now shipped more than 20 million doses to 20 countries. That will expand in the next week, via 14.4 million additional doses in another 31 countries.
  • The new director-general of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, calls the unequal worldwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccine “unconscionable.” This will be addressed in a forthright manner on the world stage; stay tuned.
  • Not much has gone right in Brazil lately, with the world’s second highest COVID-19 death toll (266,000) and third highest case count (11 million). A new variant of the virus is racing through the country, hospitals in the cities are “close to collapse,” the supply of oxygen is perilously low, the vaccination rollout is slow and chaotic and the President is in denial.
  • But there’s a bright light in the darkness: Three-time World Cup champion Pele, vaccinated last week at age 80, offered a shout-out on his social media channels. “Today is an unforgettable day… The pandemic is not over yet. We must keep discipline to preserve lives until many people have taken the vaccine." This could be his most important gooooooaaaaaaal yet.
  • It’s something out of a James Bond movie: From Russia and Not with Love. A disinformation campaign against U.S. vaccines is trying to lift the Russian’s own vaccine, Sputnik, into a more exalted orbit.
The Takeaway:
The World Health Organization says it best: “Countries are not in a race with each other, this is a common race against the virus… We’re asking all countries to be part of a global effort to suppress the virus everywhere.”

Three Questions With...
Teneo senior managing director Lisa R. Davis

How would you assess communications and messaging around the vaccination effort so far?

Taken from a global perspective and understanding that the world has not gone through a pandemic of this magnitude in generations, the fact that we are making such progress is gratifying. The communications have had a positive impact.

This is a testament to the intense focus from world leaders and our citizenry working with and through mass media. It also underscores the power and volume of communications channels available today. The first coronavirus vaccine was given in December 2020. Three months later, in March 2021, The New York Times reports that over 309 million vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to four doses for every 100 people. We have much more work to do. Yet we cannot divorce the assessment of communications and messaging from achieved results.

What are the areas in which those efforts could stand to improve?

We are in a relatively early phase of the worldwide rollout for vaccines. The methods used for reaching such a broad group of people are still expanding. We are going through multiple stages of understanding, information dissemination and decision-making. For example, we are learning about the changing nature of the virus. We consider, in stages, how best to handle these twists and turns. So many life practices have been impacted; everything from how to work, go to school, shop, enjoy leisure activities and even how to spend time with loved ones. We are closer to the beginning than the end of communications around the pandemic and vaccines.

An expert in public policy research with whom I once worked told me that there is no such thing as a vanquishing fact – or one message above all others that will bring about unified behaviors. Reaching people where they are in their understanding and in ways that speak to them vastly differ. As my colleagues and I work with Fortune 100 and other large companies, we find that taking a tailored approach to communications that considers factors beyond information delivery is best. What works for one culture, organization and group won’t work in exactly the same way for others.

Take the issue of COVID-19 vaccinations in the workplace. Some companies are providing incentives to employees who receive the vaccines. Other companies are not taking an active stance and are leaving the decision to vaccinate solely up to employees. The communications approaches in each of these instances greatly vary and will continue to evolve. Evolving in the case of coronavirus communications often equals improving.

Two facts about COVID-19 and vaccine communications are universally true: We will be engaging in them consistently and over a long period of time. However, the lessons we are learning about effective communications and messaging are astounding and will immeasurably advance our profession.

What are the first things you plan to do after you receive the COVID vaccine? And after the pandemic lifts?

Protecting others as well as myself remains a priority. Regardless of when I receive my vaccine, my lifestyle won’t immediately change. When the pandemic is verifiably over, I’ll publicly pay my respects to those who gave and lost the most. Then I will celebrate life – hopefully on a beach – with friends and family that I haven’t seen in a while.

(Are you smart? Do you know someone who is? If so, please reach out to Larry.Dobrow@haymarketmedia.com with nominations for potential “Three Questions With…” respondents)

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The rest
  • Our legacy from a pandemic year: In the Washington Post, Antony Faoli explores “how future generations will judge humanity’s performance against the coronavirus.” A digital time capsule in development at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda will chronicle “what we got right — and what we got wrong.”
  • The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has received the first vial from the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine administered in the U.S. on December 14, 2020. The first vaccinee, Northwell Health ICU nurse Sandra Lindsay, donated her hospital ID badge as well as her blue and white scrubs.
  • Hey kids—you can create your own COVID time capsule!
  • Dr. Fauci has donated his 3D model of the coronavirus virion, a blue ball with orange and tan protein spikes, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
  • From the Associated Press: After a pandemic year, a weary world looks back—and forward.
  • Will we ever get back to “normal”? Not if Unilever has anything to say about it. As Brittaney Kiefer reports in Campaign, the company will no longer use the word in packaging or advertising its beauty and personal care products. It’s all part of a new global strategy, “Positive Beauty,” that aims to “champion a new era of beauty which is equitable and inclusive.”
  • Researchers from the U.S. and Europe asked child and adolescent psychiatrists around the world to share their “field notes” and “vivid reflections” as the pandemic unfolded and exacted its psychic toll. More than 130 clinicians from 54 countries unpacked their email, photo and voice memo apps and produced a rich archive of personal and professional experiences—“global snapshots of an overstrained profession.”
  • Four former Surgeons General are recommending that a one-time National Vaccine Day be declared in late spring “to celebrate the achievement of COVID-19 vaccination, promote vaccine education and honor the healthcare workers who have protected us through the pandemic.”
  • As March Madness in bubble form approaches, the AP reminds us how much COVID has changed the way we play, watch and cheer.

Parting shot
We’re all trying to make sense of a daily onslaught of information and advice. It’s like riding the teacups in Disneyland. You need to find a point of focus and not get caught up in the dizzying swirl. And what we focus on this week is this observation from David Ho of Columbia University, a lead investigator in clinical trials for the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
“If the rampant spread of the virus continues and more critical mutations accumulate, then we may be condemned to chasing after the evolving SARS-CoV-2 continually, as we have long done for influenza virus. Such considerations require that we stop virus transmission as quickly as is feasible, by redoubling our mitigation measures and by expediting vaccine rollout… We have to stop the virus from replicating and that means rolling out vaccine faster and sticking to our mitigation measures like masking and physical distancing. Stopping the spread of the virus will stop the development of further mutations.”

...and some songs, in honor of International Women’s Day 2021

Many thanks for tuning in. Be safe, have a restful weekend and remember that we’ll be getting another hour of daylight come Sunday. We’ll take that as a good omen.


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