A new study shows the importance of the messenger when trying to encourage people to get their COVID-19 vaccines.

People who know someone who was sickened by the virus or who died from it were twice as likely to get their own vaccinations, researchers report.

“This study shows that the messenger matters more than the message: Hearing about the experiences of a trusted person, such as a friend or a family member, can be more effective than vaccine mandates,” said lead author Saurabh Kalra, a doctoral student at the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Brunswick, N.J.

“A corollary to this finding is that an influential public figure whom people admire and trust can adversely impact public health if they share misinformation such as the disease is harmless or the vaccines are harmful or unnecessary,” he said in a Rutgers news release.

The researchers surveyed just over 1,100 people who were eligible for the vaccine from April 7 to April 12, 2021. They asked whether each person knew family members or friends who had recovered, were still sick or had died from COVID-19. They also asked about COVID vaccination.

Certain categories of people were more likely to have received an initial vaccine dose within four months of the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines. These included essential workers, people with good or better health status, older people and those who had a higher income or a higher education level.

People who were uninsured, Alaskan natives or American Indians were significantly less likely to receive the vaccine within four months of the approval.

“These findings should encourage people to share stories about their COVID-19 illness and bereavement experiences with their friends and family, as well as through social media, as it may motivate people to be vaccinated,” said study co-author Irina Grafova, a health economist at Rutgers.

“It also can help public health professionals design educational strategies to improve calls to action for vaccination,” she said in the release.

More focused efforts are needed to increase vaccinations in younger adults, those with lower education and those living in lower-income households, the researchers also noted.

“Most health behaviors, including exercise, smoking and drug use are subject to peer influence, so it is not surprising that vaccine use is also socially patterned. We need to stop acting like people rationally make vaccine decisions by themselves based on a careful weighing of the evidence,” said study co-author Paul Duberstein, chair of the Department of Health Behavior, Society and Policy at Rutgers School of Public Health.

The findings were published recently in the journal Vaccine.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19 vaccines.

SOURCE: Rutgers University-New Brunswick, news release, Feb. 3, 2023