elvis presley vaccine leadership polio biden coronavirus geeta nayyar nr vpx_00000116
Biden's team following Elvis Presley's footsteps on vaccine
02:51 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He is senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

On October 28, 1956, a young Elvis Presley went on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” A phenom who had burst onto the national music scene earlier that year with his first album, he played “Hound Dog” and did some slick dance moves. The crowd screamed so loud you could barely hear him sing.

David M. Perry

But what really makes that night so memorable is that before his performance, viewers watched Presley get his polio vaccine on television. It made headlines and, critically, also helped convince teens and young adults – people who thought they weren’t at risk – that they needed a vaccine too in order to help defeat the deadly disease.

Polio was a viral disease that surged in the US during the 1940s, killing thousands of children and leaving tens of thousands paralyzed. Public health officials imposed quarantines as outbreaks appeared, parents were urged to keep their children home, travel between cities was curtailed.

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now known as the March of Dimes, decided to make polio their number one issue, at once emphasizing its danger and its curability. They got President Truman on board and thanks to the work of many different scientists, most famously Dr. Jonas Salk, developed a vaccine. Polio was beaten, but only if enough people took the vaccine.

The problem was that although children were getting vaccinated, teens and young adults figured they weren’t at risk from polio so weren’t taking the shot, and thus polio remained endemic.

American singer and musician Elvis Presley swivels his hips as he performs with his band onstage during his second appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," on October 28, 1956.

Now we’re on the cusp of a Covid-19 vaccine, thanks to unprecedented efforts. But to get from today to a post-Covid world will require not only overcoming significant logistical complications, but just persuading a skeptical and worried public to take the shot.

We’re gonna need not just one Elvis, but a whole all-star band to get this done. As Dr. Sandra Quinn, chair of the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland, told NPR back in August: “social norms make a difference … so I know that in my own research that if you believe that all the people you love and that care for you think you should get the vaccine, you are more likely to get it.”

She envisioned a campaign “that may include…local and state health departments, the CDC, ideally the … the administration … civic leaders, religious leaders, celebrities … all of those people. As they come out and start saying, I got the vaccine and here’s why I did that, those things can help ….”

Celebrity leadership and activism can be overrated, but there are moments in which famous and trusted people can sway mass opinion in ways vital to the public good. The Covid vaccine could be one such case. Every American needs to see someone they know and trust taking the vaccine in real time. Former presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton have all said they will take the vaccine publicly, which is great, but we’re going to need to do a lot more than that.

It shouldn’t have to be so hard but, unfortunately, two negative factors are colliding to create dangerous skepticism about the coming vaccine. First, anti-vaccination panic is widespread on both the left and the right in general; an October CNN poll showed the number of Americans who said they’d get a coronavirus vaccine having dropped since May. Second, much of what the Trump administration has told us about coronavirus has been either wrong or a lie.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve consoled myself through the hardest moments by remembering that the effort to produce both a vaccine and treatments for Covid-19 was proceeding at an unprecedented scale. If we could just hang on, I reassured myself, this would end. The last month has brought the extraordinary news that at least two of the vaccines are performing with great efficacy at stopping the virus. The first doses should arrive in week, bringing needed relief to those most at risk.

But to really beat the virus, we’re going to need the vast majority of people to take the vaccine. Otherwise, we’ll end up in a situation where vaccinated people will have immunity, but the disease will remain endemic in the population. That’s better than epidemic, but even a 95% effective vaccine is not 100%, and some people will not be able to vaccinate due to immune-system deficiencies or other complicating factors.

One of those complications stems from misuse of the concept of herd immunity, which occurs when a large enough percentage of a population is immune, making person-to-person spread unlikely.

Highly controversial Trump adviser Scott Atlas, a radiologist from a conservative think tank embedded at Stanford University, talked his way on Fox News into taking over Trump’s response to the disease (this after Jared Kushner failed his way up to lead the response April, and Mike Pence took over and declared there would be no second wave in June). Atlas’s arguments boiled down to what would have been a grisly strategy, sacrificing so many lives, even if it could have worked.

But the herd immunity approach failed in Sweden. It’s currently failing in America, where Thursday saw a dark new threshold of a daily death toll. That’s because herd immunity isn’t a viable strategy without a vaccine. In fact, according to Yale health policy professor Howard Forman, herd immunity has never happened on its own (without a vaccine) with any disease in human history. Not ever.

Meanwhile, Trump’s spokesperson has declared the new vaccines the “Trump Vaccine,” a branding that is just not going to get some skeptical people on board. And, unfortunately, anti-vaccination conspiracy theories run rampant among an unfortunately bipartisan fringe in our otherwise divided society.

What’s to be done?

In addition to former presidents stepping forward, I’ve been thinking about Elvis. After his Ed Sullivan appearance, vaccination rates rose rapidly, with Elvis’ celebrity providing at the very least a tool to popularize the key public health message.

What’s more, we’ve already seen the power of celebrity in changing attitudes around Covid-19 for the better. All the dire warnings coming from scientists lacked the impact of Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson announcing they had caught the virus on a fateful Wednesday in March. The NBA called off all their games that same night. Suddenly, a lot more people were taking this seriously. Actors like Richard Schiff have continued to use their platforms to broadcast information about their experiences with the disease.

We’re going to need a massive infrastructure and logistics campaign to get the vaccines where they need to go, but then people will have to want to take it. That’s where it’s time to get celebrities on board. Obama, Bush, and Clinton can lead the way, but that’s insufficient.

We need to at least try to get Trump on board too, because tens of millions of Americans regard him as their most trustworthy exemplar. Perhaps it’s a promising sign that on Thursday, Ivanka Trump tweeted the news of the former presidents’ statements, adding: “I applaud these pronouncements to help assure the public that the vaccine is safe and effective. My offer holds to do the same.”

In fact, every politician should be willing to get the vaccine on camera in order to convince their narrow base. The Biden administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regional trusted health authorities (I’m in the Midwest, so I’m thinking about the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic), and governors should all reach out to the stars of country music and pop, basketball and NASCAR, and get them on board. Beyonce and Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, the boys from BTS, LeBron James, Tom Brady, whomever we can.

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    We’re no longer in the concentrated media environment of the 1950s Sullivan show where a single star on a single station can shape the news of the nation, but the diversity of platforms and audiences can be a strength if everyone finds a known and trusted face within their media niche taking the vaccine.

    I suppose we’re going to have to find some YouTubers and TikTok stars to livestream vaccination, but I’m too old to know which one. President Biden, feel free to reach out to my 11-year-old for advice on this.

    Bare arms. Get vaccinated. Be safe from Covid. Save the world. What more could a celebrity want?