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Unvaccinated Oregonians don’t trust Gov. Kate Brown’s advice. But new research shows they also lack faith in COVID-19 messaging from almost anyone else, whether talk radio, Fox News, MSNBC or religious leaders.

Brown’s lack of credibility among unvaccinated Oregonians is no surprise. She consistently polls among the most polarizing governors in our polarized country. Brown is to Oregon Republicans as former President Donald Trump is to Democrats.

As researcher Benjamin Clark told me, “It doesn’t appear to us that Governor Brown is the best messenger for the population that isn’t vaccinated.”

Clark is co-executive director at the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research and Engagement. The survey developed by him and colleague Robert Parker was conducted May 21-June 26 and involved 351 urban Oregonians and 335 from rural residents.

The survey found rural Oregonians are less likely to consider COVID-19 a serious threat, to get vaccinated and to embrace public health measures such as physical distancing and facemasks. Those findings track with other surveys and data from other states.

“This combination of higher risk behaviors in rural areas is likely to create a longer-lasting and more impactful pandemic in Oregon. This combination of factors could create a breeding ground for new variants to emerge that will threaten not just rural Oregon, but the whole state,” Clark and Parker write in their report, “Achieving COVID-19 Herd Immunity in Oregon: Progress & Challenges.”

They add, “It will be vital to continue finding ways to persuade, entice, and encourage residents everywhere, and rural Oregonians in particular, to get vaccinated.”

Local doctors and other healthcare providers provide one answer. Patients trust them – as long as they’re not viewed as government agents. The report recommends against handing out materials published by the Oregon Health Authority or local public health agencies. Instead, OHA should give materials to healthcare providers that they can brand as their own.

These findings seem like common sense. They correlate with Gov. John Kitzhaber’s March 2020 letter to Brown in which he advised her to take advantage of existing local networks of people.

I checked with a couple of Oregon experts to get their perspective. It turns out that Brown’s situation is not unique.

“The governor’s issue is not just her issue,” political scientist Jim Moore said. “The governors in states have become lightning rods for everything.”

However, Brown doesn’t gain anything by her press conferences in which state officials and others laud her leadership and repeat her talking points ad nauseum.

“The way to maintain credibility is to stop being a Greek chorus of cheerleaders and to be more like Anthony Fauci, who when he was standing next to the president, would come to the microphone and disagree or point out, ‘Here’s the real scientific way to think about this,’” said Moore, a professor at Pacific University. “Everything is so partisan right now that by being a cheerleader, you lose credibility.”

Fauci directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and is chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden. By the way, the UO research found Biden is more trusted among unvaccinated Oregonians than Brown or national media.

Portland-based pollster John Horvick, who was not involved in the study, said it’s difficult to find spokespeople who will appeal to unvaccinated young adults in the Portland area yet not repel rural conservatives. And vice versa.

“There just are very few messengers that cut across demographic or voting groups that aren’t going to alienate some other group,” Horvick told me. “Vaccine rates are very partisan and they’re also very age dependent.”

Liberals and conservatives alike do tend to trust their doctor, he said, whereas most Oregonians pay little heed to politicians.

As for Brown, she’ll keep on keeping on. Her deputy press secretary, Charles Boyle, sent this response to my questions about the UO study:

“The Governor will continue to provide updates and explain her decisions to Oregonians during a pandemic – including sharing information about the vital importance of safe and effective vaccines. Giving regular statewide press updates to the media is not the same thing as being a sole or primary messenger for vaccines.

“Given the political polarization we have seen during the pandemic, it is no surprise that the researchers’ survey shows that elected leaders, cable news and local newspapers are also among the least trusted messengers for unvaccinated Oregonians, especially those who are most skeptical about vaccination. …”

OHA echoed that statement.

“The strategies highlighted in the UO report are consistent with our own research, and they’ve been the foundation of our vaccination campaigns since the outset,” spokesperson Rudy Owens said by email.

“Getting vaccinated is a personal choice, and we have been focused on acknowledging the questions people have asked and providing accurate answers about the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. We’ve run targeted and extensive campaigns that give voice to doctors, nurses and other medical experts, as well as real people who’ve shared their vaccination stories with people in their own communities. …”

However, the UO research indicated that only 29% of unvaccinated Oregonians had moderate or total trust in OHA. The report stated: “Concerns about the efficacy, side effects, and speed of vaccine development are keeping many from getting the vaccine. Known strategies for communicating these public health measures exist and need to be funded and disseminated widely around the state.”

I’ll close with a few intriguing tidbits from the study and my conversation with UO researcher Clark:

  • OHA’s public data on COVID-19 cases and deaths should differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Currently, that information is updated once a month and is not easily found online. In June, 92% of cases and 94% of deaths were among unvaccinated Oregonians.

  • Monetary incentives do little to sway people. However, $100 cash payments would be more effective than the $1 million vaccine lottery prize that Brown awarded last week. The $100 could potentially change the minds of 20% of those who said they would not vaccinate and 33% of those who might vaccinate.

  • Merely 9% of unvaccinated Oregonians expressed moderate or total trust in Brown. Still, that number was higher than for talk radio, social media news stories, general county government and big corporations.

  • “Your doctor” and “Your family members” each had 43% trust; “Your friends,” 35%; and “Your religious or faith leader,” 23%.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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