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Think back to
October and November of 2020. The COVID pandemic was raging in the
United States, and although there were plenty of news reports about the
apparently successful development and testing of vaccines, none had been
approved or were available to the American public at that time.
Still, public health officials were preparing for the vaccination
process in the U.S., including considering how to best communicate and
For the University of Delaware’s Amy Bleakley, this challenge seemed
to fit with research she was already conducting under a grant from the
National Institute on Aging, exploring ways to encourage more diverse
groups to participate in studies of Alzheimer’s disease.
“This pandemic disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic communities and older adults,” said Bleakley, a professor of communication who focuses on health communication. “These are the exact groups we’re studying in the Alzheimer’s project.”
She and other health communication scholars at UD began researching
how targeted and strategic messaging can cut through the confusion and
misinformation about vaccines. The professors and graduate students
investigated how age, education and attitudes influence behavior and
affect public health during the pandemic.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Amy Bleakley focuses her research on health communication.
Bleakley and her colleagues’ research, specifically looking at
vaccine hesitancy among demographic groups, was recently published in
the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
They surveyed national samples of different demographic groups:
Black, Hispanic, white, those age 18-49 and those 50 and older. They
examined such questions as attitudes toward science, misperceptions
about the COVID virus, perceptions of media bias and what is called
normative pressure — whether people who are important to you think you
should get the vaccine and whether people who are like you will get the
National research from November 2020 showed that Black Americans said
they were much less likely than whites to get the vaccine when it
became available. Bleakley and her colleagues delved into other
attitudes and factors in different groups, using a widely tested
behavioral theory called Reasoned Action Approach (RAA), which examines
The study found that many patterns were similar across groups,
including the value an individual placed on science and whether they
were receiving accurate information about COVID and the vaccine. Older
adults in all groups were more susceptible to misinformation, for
“What we found is that attitudes are important across the board,
including a person’s expectation of what will happen once they get the
vaccine,” Bleakley said. “There weren’t as many differences among racial
and ethnic groups as we had anticipated, especially among older
People’s attitudes, she said, are very much tied to their identity —
whether to a racial or ethnic group, a political party or other factors
they consider important — and so are not easy to change. Messaging is
important in the area of public health, but messaging alone isn’t
enough, she said.
Bleakley called the published paper “a first step in figuring out how to create effective messaging.”
And the project is continuing, with researchers surveying
participants every month and tracking their attitudes and their
vaccination status. Other papers by various researchers in the
department are in process as the monthly data is collected and analyzed
with the help of graduate and undergraduate students.
“We have a huge amount of data coming in,” Bleakley said. “We’re
lucky to have such an engaged group of students working on this.”
The paper published in October is titled “Psychosocial Determinants of COVID-19 Vaccination Intention Among White, Black, and Hispanic Adults in the US.”
Co-authors, with Bleakley, are Michael Hennessey, Erin Maloney,
Dannagal G. Young, John Crowley and Kami Silk, all of the UD Department
of Communication, and Jessica B. Langbaum of Banner Alzheimer’s
Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.
The work was funded by a National Institute of Aging grant, “COVID-19
Spillover: How the COVID-19 information environment affects perceptions
of scientific research and Alzheimer’s disease prevention efforts.”
The original grant was designed to find ways to increase
participation, and especially diversity of participation, in brain
health registries that feed into clinical studies of Alzheimer’s. The
expanded grant also examines perceptions of COVID, including the monthly
online surveys of participants, and will include a 12-month content
analysis of news coverage of the pandemic.
Numerous other research projects have been conducted or are underway
in the communication department, which has a developing specialization
in health communication and is establishing a Center for Health
Projects by UD scholars include the following:
Article by Ann Manser; photo by iStock and courtesy of Amy Bleakley
Published Jan. 21, 2022