5. The Holiday Blockbuster


Like Hollywood’s usual slate of holiday blockbusters, the fifth stage of the COVID-19 pandemic had it all. Unlike the movies however, which were either delayed or released via streaming platforms, The Surge III was showing nationwide and wasted no time getting started.

In just the first half of November, we saw a national election that did not have an announced winner for four days, weeks of misinformation-fueled election protest, 100,000 new U.S. COVID-19 cases reported in a 24-hour period, the announcement of not one, but two COVID-19 vaccines with 94.5 percent and 95 percent phase 3 clinical trial efficacy (respectively); and the 250,000th U.S. COVID-19 death.

The third surge could not have started faster and been more unruly had Sandra Bullock been at the wheel with Keanu Reeves shouting in her ear.

Then, in the last 20 days of 2020, the FDA granted emergency use authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the U.S. reported its 300,000th COVID-19 death, the CDC ACIP recommended long-term care residents and frontline healthcare workers be given “1a” status for vaccination (get it in their arms, now!), the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the U.S. and was followed by vaccination efforts playing out under 50 state health department plans filtered through more than 3,000 county, borough and parish health departments across the country. Finally, on Dec. 31, the CDC confirmed that the U.S. had administered about 2.8 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, well short of a goal of 20 million by year’s end.

It was… a lot.

Key Challenges and Lessons Learned

During this fifth phase, healthcare providers remained in the same crisis-recovery-recalibration-crisis cycle in which they’d been stuck for eight months. The issue was not one of creating solutions to new problems but of finding the stamina to fight new versions of old problems.

Here are a few ways they did it.

Anticipate the next test and ask for the answers.

Many savvy healthcare providers had deployed internal pulse polling at pivotal points throughout the pandemic and that continued throughout this period. When it became clear that vaccines were coming sooner rather than later, providers used short, internal polls to seek their teams’ vaccine preferences and to shape vaccine protocols and communications. The best of these polls featured questions about why team members were or were not planning to receive the vaccine, which allowed for vaccine communications to be tailored to individual aspirations and doubts. To be clear, this was an effective approach but unfortunately one that didn’t get enough traction – as my colleague Kim Fox takes apart in the next piece.

Going forward: We must anticipate when a change or challenges are emerging, and we must give our team members the opportunity to tell us what it means to them.

Counteract distraction and fatigue with familiarity and purpose.

Pandemic fatigue was not a new challenge during the third surge, but it looked different this time around. Records for cases, hospitalizations and deaths were being set and surpassed with increasing frequency. Political turmoil had intensified. The authorization of two COVID-19 vaccines meant new protocols would need to be created and implemented alongside current protocols. While accustomed to being apart, families and friends were now bracing to miss cherished holiday traditions.

Also, the vaccine offered healthcare workers something they had not had access to in a long time: a choice. While they found themselves fatigued, they were also empowered at a point in the pandemic when nobody could force them to take what many had long assumed to be the next given step.

Providers responded to this familiar, yet evolved holiday-season version of pandemic fatigue by collecting and sharing testimonials from willing team members and used them to allay the concerns of hesitant team members. Where earlier pandemic messaging came from leaders-by-title via all-employee webinars, newsletters and intranet sites, vaccine messages during the third surge increasingly came from leaders-by-reputation in small-team huddles, inter-team conversations, video messages and social media.

Going forward: Remember that while distraction and fatigue become apparent in how we work against the pandemic, focus and commitment are engendered by reminding our team of why we work against the pandemic.

A Plot Twist We Didn’t See Coming

Up until this phase of the pandemic, healthcare providers had retained a certain level of control, up to a point, at least. The absence of active national leadership allowed them to shape their response to both their organization and market. That changed when the vaccines arrived, and providers found themselves caught between state and local eligibility guidance, national and local dose supplies and shipping schedules, and a public who assumed providers had a higher degree of control over vaccine administration than was the case.

Many providers were caught flat-footed and are still trying to optimize their external communications strategy to satisfy community demands for decisive information and action in a situation that is fluctuating on daily basis.

Going forward: Assume we’ll have less control over what happens with vaccines and how, while still being relied on to deliver timely and actionable information. We should expand our transparent communications beyond our pandemic response to also clarify our role relative to the larger vaccine effort, how we can help our patients and how we’re different than other players. Taking these steps now with COVID-19-related issues will serve us well when the next crisis (big or small) hits.

If this approach sounds familiar – for example, like an integrated marketing and communications campaign that differentiates you from the competition – it should. We’re still very much in the pandemic, but the fifth phase put us front and center with the general public. It’s time to engage them like no one else can.

About the Author /

[email protected]

Healthcare organizations seeking to leverage communications to achieve strategic objectives benefit from Dan Schlacter’s 15 years of integrated marketing and communications agency experience. Over his career, Schlacter has advised clients in sectors including health IT, life sciences, healthcare consultancies, provider services, industry organizations and patient advocate groups on rebrands, strategic positioning, thought leadership, crisis navigation, alliance development, public affairs, media relations, digital campaigns and more. With deep client experience extending beyond healthcare to include senior living, retail, education and workforce development, Schlacter brings value to healthcare professionals whose industry continues to intersect with non-traditional players and be shaped by increasing consumer engagement. Prior to joining Jarrard Inc. in 2020, Schacter was a senior account supervisor with Nashville-based MP&F Strategic Communications.