126: Personal Stories Fight Vaccine Misinformation

Molly Howell, Immunization Director at the North Dakota Department of Health, says testimonials from people impacted by COVID-19 have helped make the virus real for people with doubts about the vaccines; Chrissie Juliano, Executive Director of the Big...

Spotify podcast player badge
Apple Podcasts podcast player badge
Amazon Music podcast player badge
Google Podcasts podcast player badge

Molly Howell, Immunization Director at the North Dakota Department of Health, says testimonials from people impacted by COVID-19 have helped make the virus real for people with doubts about the vaccines; Chrissie Juliano, Executive Director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, says a shortage of epidemiologists has left many health departments unable to respond to a growing number of public health challenges; HHS seeks applications for $3 billion in grant proposals to improve public health infrastructure, workforce, and data systems; and ASTHO remembers a public health titan.

Big Cities Health Coalition/CSTE: Report – Cities Need to Increase Number of Epidemiologists

HHS Infrastructure, Workforce, and Data Systems Grant Announcement

ASTHO Blog Article: Remembering Paul Farmer – When Public Health Doesn’t Back Down

ASTHO logo



This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Friday, February 25th, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson.

Now, today's news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.


Vaccine misinformation continues to be a challenge for health departments working to encourage holdouts to protect themselves from COVID-19. Molly Howell is immunization director at the North Dakota Department of Health. She explains the challenges there and the state's response in today's morning conversation.

Vaccine misinformation has been a challenge for everyone during the pandemic. How is it playing out in North Dakota?


Well, I think even before the vaccine became available, there was misinformation about COVID and COVID mitigation, and it started with people in North Dakota underestimating the severity of COVID illness, and then underestimating the need to take mitigation steps.

And so, then, when the vaccine did become available, there was a lot of misinformation about the vaccine, including a variety of different concerns about safety. And then, there was a mistrust of the government from the COVID response and thinking that we inflated the severity of COVID or inflated hospitalizations or deaths; and then frustration with the government about some of the recommendations we made around masking or some of the other mitigation things.

And so, I think that's kind of where it started from.


So, how have you responded to all of this what's being done to try and correct the situation? Anything?


The North Dakota Department of Health has really taken a lead on throughout the COVID response in communicating with the public; and we realized that we are the government—and I think public health sometimes doesn't think about ourselves that way—but we're seen as the government and right now, when the government isn't necessarily trusted, it's good to use some of our partners maybe to be more on the forefront providing information to the public. And so, we've been working more with trusted healthcare providers, physicians, to be more public-facing and communicating around COVID and COVID vaccine.

Our social media was really active during COVID and we actually had to turn off social media comments on our Facebook page because we found that they were spreading more misinformation than the information that we were trying to put out.

We're trying to empower healthcare providers to be able to talk with patients around COVID vaccine and feel comfortable having those difficult conversations. And so, we're doing peer-to-peer site visits with nurses and physicians to improve their confidence in the vaccine and communication. We're also doing that with long-term care staff.

We did start a COVID impact wall because part of the misinformation is a lack of understanding of the severity of illness. And so, members of the public are able to post to a wall, whether it's videos or just a blog, about how COVID impacted them. And so, it could be the loss of a loved one, or it could be individuals who have long-term impacts from having had COVID, just to kind of put a face with COVID and explain why the vaccine is so important.


Are the patient testimonials helping give credibility to your messages? These are the messages that people are posting online.


I think they're giving credibility to trying to articulate what the severity of illness is. I think they also bring it home.

North Dakota is a very rural state, and so it's possible in certain areas of the state they may not know someone who had severe COVID or lost a loved one to COVID. They can see someone they know or someone from their own community who did experience a negative impact from COVID.



Health departments across the country are running low on disease detectives—that's according to a new report from the Big Cities Health Coalition and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. The report surveyed health departments in cities across the U.S. It found 177 openings for epidemiologists last year; but even that number is considered to be just 29% of the positions needed to help departments achieve full capacity.

Chrissie Juliano is executive director of the Big Cities Health Coalition.


Compared to five years ago, we've seen decreases in chronic disease and preparedness, which makes us less prepared to respond to both routine public health crises and emergencies, and really highlights a significant lack of capacity to collect and analyze data for ongoing challenges like obesity and tobacco—again, in addition to emergencies.

So, not only are Big Cities having to redirect resources for COVID, but in normal times, we also don't necessarily have adequate coverage for other health priorities.


We'll hear more about the report from Juliano in a morning conversation that's planned for next week. In the meantime, if you want to read the report, there's a link in the show notes.


HHS has announced a new grant opportunity with money to strengthen public health infrastructure, workforce, and data systems. States are among those eligible to apply for the grant funding. Applications are due June 13th. HHS will award $3 billion to winning projects this fall. There's a link to the grant announcement in the show notes.


Finally today, the public health community bids farewell to Paul Farmer, a physician who his life working to improve healthcare in the world's most destitute places. ASTHO remembers the 62-year-old humanitarian in a blog article now online. Find it clicking the link in the show notes.


That'll do it for today's newscast. We are back Monday morning with more ASTHO news and information.


I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great weekend.

Chrissie Juliano MPP

Executive Director, Big Cities Health Coalition

Molly Howell MPH

Immunization Director, North Dakota Department of Health