Vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccinations do.
That is an essential lesson we have learned from working at the forefront of vaccine development and health communication. One of us (S.P.) helped develop vaccines for rubella, rabies, and rotavirus, that have played an essential role in reducing preventable childhood deaths in the United States and around the world — but only because of public health campaigns that built trust in vaccination and made vaccines easily accessible to people from every walk of life.
Now along comes Covid-19, a highly infectious disease caused by a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV2, that humans had never previously encountered. In an amazing feat of science and speed, we now have vaccines against this virus that are proving to be highly effective.
Experts say that 70% to 90% of Americans need to be vaccinated to end the pandemic. Yet 44% of Americans plan on waiting to receive a vaccine, and 15% have said they don’t want to be vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 at all. That won’t get us to the necessary level of immunity. We risk needlessly losing more lives to Covid-19 unless we launch massive campaigns to overcome vaccine hesitancy and ensure vaccines are accessible to all.
This is why we need National Vaccine Day — a one-time federal holiday in 2021 to promote vaccine education, honor the health care workers and scientists who have toiled to help so many survive the pandemic, and remember those who died from it. We are among a growing group of scientists and public health experts calling for such a holiday, including Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th Surgeon General of the United States, and Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science & Security.
The holiday itself would be a large scale, innovative public health intervention that focuses the nation’s attention on vaccination. The announcement of the holiday’s date, planned for as soon as it is safe — likely in the summer, but potentially later depending on the progress of the vaccine rollouts — would serve as the light at the end of the tunnel, simultaneously creating a national benchmark to complete widespread vaccination campaigns and a day of opportunity for science education, social restoration, and remembrance. It will encourage Americans to get vaccinated beforehand so they can attend the public events. This puts into practice research showing that effective public health campaigns make the behaviors being promoted “easy, fun and popular.”
To be sure, National Vaccine Day should not be a premature celebration of a victory over Covid-19. Even if vaccination campaigns go well in the coming months, most of the developing world will not have access to vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 in 2021. And we need to better prepare ourselves for the next pandemic, which could be caused by influenza or other novel viruses making the jump to humans from birds or bats or other animals. So National Vaccine Day would also focus American attention on global vaccine distribution as well as initiatives to prevent the next pandemic — including the development of more effective influenza vaccines.
National Vaccine Day would employ innovative health communication techniques, allowing communities in partnership with health institutions to combat diverse forms of vaccine hesitancy. New Orleans, for instance, has already launched “Sleeves Up, NOLA!”, a campaign that uses the promise of social gatherings to encourage vaccination.
During the lead up to the holiday, a diverse group of scientists and community leaders — artists, coaches and athletes, faith leaders, and others — would highlight the importance of Covid-19 vaccination for all Americans. This campaign would help restore trust in health institutions, showcasing how public health can be community-centric, proactive, engaging, and joyful. The promise of National Vaccine Day — a day of commemoration and social restoration after months and months of social distancing — would encourage the country to get vaccinated in anticipation.
The holiday itself would involve telethons, radio shows, and Internet and social media events to educate the public on vaccines and public health. A series of concerts and festivities would bring communities together and rejuvenate industries that have financially suffered during the pandemic. National Vaccine Day would also be an opportunity to honor and express our deepest gratitude to health care workers and scientists who have worked tirelessly over the last year to protect us from the virus, often at significant personal risk. More than 1,700 health care workers have died protecting us from this virus, and National Vaccine Day could involve a vigil for those we’ve lost.
The U.S. cannot fully celebrate as long as people around the world are dying from this vaccine-preventable disease. However, we can take stock, appreciate our nation’s progress, commemorate those we’ve lost, and strive to make a better world with wider vaccination in the future. National Vaccine Day can also be used to raise funds for world vaccination and appeal to the better angels of our nature.
A one-time federal holiday to recognize and promote vaccination would help disseminate the message that safe and effective vaccines save lives. It would be an action in the tradition of global vaccination campaigns that have allowed us to eliminate some of history’s most insidious infectious diseases.
President Biden could enact National Vaccine Day by executive order — and we and our colleagues urge him to do that.
Stanley Plotkin is a vaccinologist, physician, and emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania. Norman Baylor is the president and chief executive officer at Biologics Consulting, and former director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review. Keona Wynne is doctoral student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The authors serve on a steering committee for National Vaccine Day with 1Day Sooner, a vaccine nonprofit.