'Way behind the curve': The messaging failures around coronavirus vaccine distribution

The non-profit Ad Council has produced multiple coronavirus public service announcements, including this billboard in Times Square in New York City.

(CNN)As the world watched the first Briton receive her coronavirus vaccine this week, Operation Warp Speed officials appeared bewildered by questions about whether such a prominent rollout was planned for the first dose in the US.

Asked by a reporter if there was a plan to publicize the milestone in the US, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, "You make me feel as if we should."
"We probably do need to make a plan for, you know, who's going to get it first visibly," said Army Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed.
The exchange offered the latest example of the lack of coordinated communications plan from the federal government just days before the first Americans could begin receiving a coronavirus vaccine.
    As videos of first Britons receiving the vaccine were replayed on televisions and cell phones across the United States this week, Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said it was "one of those Sputnik moments."
    "We're way behind the curve," Benjamin said, lamenting the lack of communication from the federal government. "We really need to begin very aggressively working to give people a better understanding of the vaccination needs and the trade-offs."
    A senior administration official noted the US doesn't have a centralized health care system akin to Britain's and said federal officials didn't want a ceremonial event to delay the distribution of vaccines elsewhere.
    Michael Pratt, an Operation Warp Speed spokesman, added the administration's communications plans are already underway and will be well-timed with the Food and Drug Administration's anticipated emergency use authorization (EUA) of the Pfizer vaccine.
    "In perfect lockstep -- as the EUA is set to be announced -- the paid messaging campaign has already begun," Pratt said.

    Lack of messaging at the federal level

    Operation Warp Speed's latest press briefing highlighted how the federal government is lagging in creating trusted, public channels of information about a vaccine that often has been treated as a political prize -- and has been greeted with unusually high skepticism from the American public. Experts say for the vaccine to potentially reach herd immunity, some 70% of Americans will need to take it.
    Although the percentage of Americans willing to take the vaccine is climbing, public health experts said a strong and reliable public education campaign is needed to combat distrust that remains, especially for the overwhelming skepticism that people of color have. Building public trust and creating the proper channels of communication also will help dispel misinformation.
    On top of skepticism, people are craving more information about when the vaccine will become available to them. Pharmacies have posted signs to not to expect it when the first shipment goes out, an indication of how the private sector has tried to fill the information void.
    Dr. Uche Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician who founded a company focused on health care equity, outlined the outreach needed on CNN earlier this week, especially when it comes to communities of color.
    "We need really expansive public health campaigns that are engaging community-based organizations and trusted leaders and Black communities. I also think there needs to be significant transparency around the vaccine development process. People have so many questions," Blackstock said.

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