Minh Hoang of Maine Health fills a syringe with a COVID-19 vaccine at the former Scarborough Downs horse racing track on Wednesday Feb. 3, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Frank Luntz has had a long career as a political consultant and pollster. Now, the long-time Republican advisor has a new mission: To convince Americans to get one of the coronavirus vaccines.

To do this, Luntz is using one of his trademark skills — developing the right message to be delivered by the right messenger — to persuade hesitant Americans that the vaccine can be a lifesaver.

What he has learned — that doctors with facts about the safety of the vaccines are the most persuasive messengers, for example — can help inform ongoing efforts around the country to increase vaccination rates.

“This will be my most important work this year. I’m determined to crack the ‘vaccine hesitancy’ code, and help save thousands of lives,” he said on Twitter last week.

In a poll conducted last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than a quarter of Republican voters said they would definitely not get a COVID vaccine; 18 percent said they’d wait and see. Only 41 percent of Republicans said they were already vaccinated or would get a shot as soon as possible. By contrast, 75 percent of Democratic voters said they are already vaccinated or will get an inoculation as soon as possible.

“These people represent 30 million Americans. And without these people, you’re not getting herd immunity,” Luntz told The Washington Post. Herd immunity is when enough people are resistant to a disease to protect those who can’t be or won’t be vaccinated.

His work to change these numbers included leading a focus group of 19 conservative Republicans who voted for former President Donald Trump last year and who are skeptical of the vaccine. The aim of the session, which was convened by the de Beaumont Foundation and held last Saturday, was to see what messages and people would persuade them to consider getting vaccinated.

Luntz found some unexpected things. For one, although these men and women voted for Trump in November, hearing the benefits of the vaccine from the former president would not be persuasive, many members of the group said.

Instead, they agreed that hearing from doctors — especially those who didn’t bring politics into the conversation — and from those who had personal experience with COVID was the most persuasive.

During the two-hour long session, Luntz brought in Republican politicians — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy from California, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana (a doctor), Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup, chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus — to talk to the participants. They also heard from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who talked about how sick he and former White House staff Hope Hicks, who Christie noted was young and fit, became after contracting the virus.

The group also heard from Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appointed by then-President Barack Obama.

The group deemed Frieden the most persuasive, especially his sharing that more than 95 percent of doctors who were offered the vaccine chose to get it. They were also more receptive to the vaccine after learning more about the testing process and that a large number of volunteers were given the shots without any deaths or hospitalizations.

Being able to travel would also be a big motivator to encourage people to get the vaccine.

One man from Missouri said he was 80 percent against getting the vaccine before Saturday’s session. After hearing from Frieden, he said he was 75 percent in favor of the vaccine.

“Trump Republicans remain the last significant holdout in embracing the COVID-19 vaccine — but we now have hope,” Luntz said after the focus group. “A combination of key medical facts, enumerated clearly without any political undertones, and a human story of just how random and deadly the virus has been, is a convincing, motivating message. If the elected officials and the public health experts adopt this strategy, they will save thousands of lives.”

Luntz’s prescription isn’t a magic wand that will encourage hesitant people to be vaccinated. But, what he learned can inform public health messaging around the importance of the COVID vaccine.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...