Talking about COVID Breakthrough Infections: Recommendations for Public Health Practitioners

Explore messaging guidelines and sample talking points to help you answer questions about breakthrough cases without minimizing your main strategies—getting people vaccinated, wearing masks, and using any other protections your health department has approved.

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Media coverage on breakthrough infections in people who are vaccinated make talking about COVID more complicated. This tip sheet, created by PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG), is designed to help guide your conversations. Explore BMSG’s messaging guidelines, useful metaphors and analogies, and find sample talking points that address questions about breakthrough cases, while still reinforcing critical strategies like vaccinations and wearing masks:

Breakthrough infections

Reporters often focus on extreme cases — they report on the planes that crash, not the ones that land. We can expect the media to focus on breakthrough cases and while this is important information, it may dominate the news rather than information about public health’s daily work to ensure people get vaccinated. These talking points will help you answer questions about breakthrough cases without minimizing your main strategies — getting people vaccinated, wearing masks, and using any other protections your health department has approved.

We’ve used the “truth sandwich” to structure the talking points because that format has been useful for combating misinformation and communicating complexities. The basic format is to sandwich information on breakthroughs in messages about our core public health efforts:

  1. Start with your core message, which emphasizes your values and names your solution, whether it’s getting vaccinated, wearing your mask, social distancing, etc. Acknowledge people’s concerns that these are challenging times, or that they may be worried about the delta variant.
  2. Add a talking point about breakthrough infections, but stay high level rather than getting into extremely detailed information. If possible, avoid repeating false claims about breakthrough infections; doing so may reinforce misinformation.
  3. Return back to your core message about getting vaccinated and reiterate the idea that the more people who get vaccinated the safer everyone in the county will be.

Following the sample talking points below we provide other resources that we have found useful for explaining COVID.

Sample talking points

Example main message: Like most of you, we wish COVID were over, but it is not. The most important thing we can do for each other while we are still learning about the Delta variant is getting vaccinated and wearing our masks indoors. These are the best protections we have. If you are unvaccinated or have friends and family who are unvaccinated, we can answer questions you have if you contact us [add info]. Using masks, vaccines, and social distancing is like wearing a seatbelt, having airbags, and driving the speed limit. All of those help keep you, and those around you, safer when you are driving.

Breakthrough message: We know people are concerned about breakthrough infections. The good news is that as more people protect themselves, the less COVID will be circulating in our county, which means fewer breakthroughs, fewer severe cases of COVID, fewer hospitalizations, and fewer deaths. People who are vaccinated are much less likely to get sick or be hospitalized than those who are unvaccinated. People who protect themselves with vaccines and masks increase their own odds of staying healthy and help our whole community stay healthier.

Repeat main message: We know these are challenging times and we all hoped we would not be seeing the rise in cases. The vast majority of cases are in unvaccinated people so we want to reach people who need vaccines, answer their questions, and get everyone vaccinated who wants one. In our county, we take care of each other by wearing masks indoors and [add your county’s specific recommendations if they include other protections].

Originally published by Berkeley Media Studies Group

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