LeadMN President Axel Kylander testified in from of the Minnesota State Board of Trustees on ways that they can better support students in combating misinformation and increasing campus vaccination rates.
Chair Cowles and Trustees,
As COVID-19 endures, there is an ongoing need for a robust response and continued innovation in how institutions and the System office respond to the pandemic’s challenges. Yesterday the question was raised of how the System can better support efforts to have students help each other. LeadMN thinks a peer-to-peer model is urgently needed in combating the pandemic.
One of the leading issues in getting more students vaccinated is widespread misinformation, which has led many students to have questions and concerns about the vaccine. These worries are based on false information, but they are the barrier students have to getting vaccinated. And these students are not unreachable. But the system must move beyond an awareness campaign to reach them. The System needs a vaccine education campaign, led by peer-to-peer education.
In an assessment we conducted of the December campus COVID-19 outreach report from the System Office, we found that 85% of campuses did not address misinformation in communications they shared in that report, reflecting an effort around awareness that vaccines are available, but not effective education on how they work.
I have heard many cases of panels of professional discussing misconceptions and misinformation have been met with low attendance. This is because they are figures of authority, and the persuasive impact of vaccine misinformation stems from a deep mistrust of any institutional medical authority. For students swayed by misinformation, clarification from medical authorities does not resonate. The CDC has noted that in strategies around misinformation, it is critical to pursue communication approaches that “reflect the worldview” of the audience. There is a need for the kind of familiarity, empathy, and sense of peer-ship and community that students can give each other. There is a need for peer-to-peer vaccine education.
Students can be hired and trained at the campus level to serve as vaccine education ambassadors, engaging their peers to dispel misinformation. Such a model would reach vaccine-hesitant students who could be moved to get vaccinated but will not be persuaded by outreach from authoritative bodies. Students share so many experiences, and I think the innate bond of students has been forged even closer by the challenges and trauma of the pandemic. A vaccine-hesitant student will listen to a classmate where they would not listen to a doctor.
Over the summer, I was a part of the White House’s COVID Community Corps calls, where we were urged to adopt this model by officials including Director Fauci and Surgeon General Murthy. Peer-to-peer outreach is not a biased position of LeadMN, it is a nationally recommended strategy and one that can break through a major barrier to getting our entire student population vaccinated.
LeadMN has been advocating this idea to the Chancellor’s office for months, urging that the System adopt this strategy with urgency and in earnest. And all through the pandemic LeadMN has called on the System Office to take a lead in promoting and supporting campuses in a coherent, statewide response to this crisis. Peer-to-peer outreach on vaccines is a perfect example of something the system can robustly promote and support, while also meeting the desire to consider the unique position of each campus, as students will be working within their own campus communities and communicating to peers who know them and live in the same contexts.
I have heard arguments against this model, that it would not work, or that students are not willing to do the work because none have stepped forward. But I have seen no examples of campuses even trying to undertake this initiative that leading health experts believe would work. There have been no reports of campuses creating vaccine ambassador positions, or promoting it as an opportunity for groups like nursing students or communications students. Moreover, there are about $300 million dollars in unspent COVID relief funds for higher education in Minnesota. We cannot say this strategy would not work when it has not been tried, and when there are ample resources to try.
By what we choose to do or not do, we are writing the history of this pandemic. In peer-to-peer outreach, Minnesota State has a chance to do something great and impactful to increase vaccination rates in the communities we serve and are responsible for. I urge the Board, and the System Office to heartily endorse, encourage, and support this initiative, and take a positive step that will radiate throughout our institutions and the entire state. Thank you.