The Privy Council Office warned in a memo that COVID-19 vaccine injuries and deaths had the potential to “shake public confidence” in vaccinations and discussed “winning communication strategies” to encourage vaccine uptake and to downplay concerns about adverse reactions.
“News reports of adverse events following immunization [AEFI] and the government’s response to them have the potential to shake public confidence in the COVID 19 vaccine rollout,” said a May 2021 memo.
Titled, “Testing Behaviourally-Informed Messaging In Response To Severe Adverse Events Following Immunization,” the memo was obtained by Blacklock’s Reporter through an access to information request. The document detailed the results of a study on strategies to encourage vaccine uptake among Canadians.
“There is a delicate balance between ensuring the safety of the vaccine and promoting public awareness while also ensuring public confidence in the safety of the vaccine,” said the memo. “Government messaging following an adverse event will be important to address this balance.”
Study participants were presented with a fictional news report of an AEFI describing a recent death with a possible link to the COVID-19 vaccination, then shown one of seven different framed responses that came from either the federal government, a top medical professional, or a spokesperson for the vaccine manufacturer.
“Its intent was to help prepare the government for response to potential adverse events following immunization, to identify winning communication strategies to maximize public confidence in the government’s COVID regulatory regime, and maximize public confidence in the safety of the COVID vaccine and further drive vaccination intentions,” the memo said.
The memo suggested several mechanisms to reduce AEFI fears, such as:
- “Gist Framing”: Where a vaccine adverse event is defined as any health problem that occurs after vaccination, whether related to the vaccine or not.
- “Mechanism Framing”: There is currently no known evidence or cause that would link a tragic health event to the vaccine. For instance, there are many other factors that need to be investigated (apart from the vaccine).
- “Risk Communication Framing”: Downplaying the risk of vaccination by framing it in a comparative context, citing statistics. For example: The chance of a Canadian being injured as a result of a car accident is one in 240, and 9,991 out of every 10,000 doses have been administered without any accompanying adverse event.
The study found that the “Kitchen Sink Message Frame,” which incorporates multiple behavioural science principles simultaneously, was the most effective communication approach, as it reduced concerns about vaccine safety and concerns about the news report by 17 percent relative to passive control (ie. receiving no information).
Behavioural science combines insights and methods from psychology, neuroscience, and other social sciences to understand human behaviour and support positive choices.
According to the memo, the source of the information had no impact on its effectiveness among the participants.
The memo also noted that participants who endorsed “misinformation statements” about COVID-19 vaccines were “unaffected by any messaging frame.”
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, as of March 3, 2023, of the 97.6 million vaccine doses administered to date, there have been 10,685 adverse events that were considered to be serious. These included 1,153 instances of myocarditis and pericarditis, 524 of pulmonary embolism, 324 of blood clots, and 187 of Bell’s Palsy.