Sep 18, 2023

COVID vaccine post from Mo. health department sparks backlash on social media

Posted Sep 18, 2023 11:30 AM


Within 24 hours of posting, a Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services tweet posted Wednesday racked up over 250,000 views and 140 comments: a staggering difference from their usual engagement.

The same messaging did numbers on Facebook as well, with over 140 comments and 50 shares by Friday.

So, what accounts for this sudden spike in engagement and higher numbers than DHSS has seen in a year?

“COVID vaccines will be available in Missouri soon, if you’re in to that sort of thing,” the tweet read. “If not, just keep scrolling!”

Two short sentences fanned the flame of a deep divide over COVID-19 vaccines. The new vaccine, approved by the CDC last week, is expected to be available in Missouri soon and aims to dampen the effects of the current viral surge in the U.S.

X, formerly known as Twitter, users took quickly to the comments. Some lauded the government agency for its “honest” and “laid-back” approach, while others expressed anger that the issue of COVID-19 vaccines seemed to be taken lightly by DHSS, calling the tweet “disappointing” and “ridiculous.”

“Passive-aggressive much?” one user commented. “Snark doesnt translate when it comes to public health. Do better. Commit to your core beliefs.”

The same post was divisive on Facebook, too. One user responded, “This isn’t a comedy special,” while another user posted a meme with a depiction of former chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci and the text, “The same snakes that are selling the panic are selling the cure.”

“I want to take a moment to address our social media messaging announcing the recommendations for this season’s COVID-19 vaccine,” DHSS spokesperson Lisa Cox said in a recent note sent to local public health agencies. “I know there have been mixed feelings on the messaging, which was anticipated, but I wanted to explain why this approach was used.”

In her note, Cox dubbed the department’s social media strategy as “tongue in cheek” and admitted that they took a risk with this tactic. She said that the goal of this course of action was to meet Missouri’s social media users where they are — whether that be the pro-vaccine or the anti-vaccine community.

“We tried something different, showed the human side of government and surprised people,” Cox continued in the note. “Today, more people are talking about the COVID vaccine because of it.”

Cox also cited “COVID fatigue” in the note, a phenomenon caused by extended media messaging on the vaccine.

“We are all aware that vaccine messaging has become increasingly difficult over the years, and I would argue that this fall we are facing the toughest time to date,” Cox said in the note. “People are beyond COVID-fatigued. In recent weeks, as respiratory illness cases have increased (as predicted for this time of year), the noise on social media has amplified.”

Georges Benjamin is the executive director of the American Public Health Association. APHA is a Washington D.C. advocacy group for public health professionals, dedicated to improving the health of the public and achieving equity in health status. Benjamin has worked as a state health department official; he started at APHA in 2002 after working as secretary of the Maryland Department of Health.

“Whether you’re a politician, you work for the government, or if you’re a health person that doesn’t work for the government, your job is to protect the public’s good,” Benjamin said. “Clearly, we think that promoting this vaccine is a strong public health measure, and that’s how we support it.”

Cox and Benjamin both agree that medicine and public health are not and should not be political, but political debates surrounding COVID-19 vaccines are still circulating on social media in Missouri, four months after the disease was no longer categorized as a health emergency and amid an uptick in cases.

“Are we going to please everyone? Never,” Cox said in her note. “Will the negative comments stop on social? Also never. But we will keep sharing the facts and keep recommending public health measures. It just might not always look how the government has always done it.”

This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online.