Sure, we’re all ready to resume our normal lives. And as the CDC’s Dr. Rochelle Walensky says, we’re so close: just hold on a little longer.
But in this brief video, she stresses how worried she is that we’ll lose our hard-earned progress by resuming our pre-COVID lives too soon.
Dr. Walensky’s warning coincided with an experience I had this week that convinced me I need to know how to talk to people who resist being vaccinated. The stakes are too high for all of us to allow the huge advances that we’ve made to be overtaken by renewed spikes, which have already begun in some states.
So I’m trying to learn how to approach the reluctant souls (perhaps they include you?)—and to pass that information on to you.
I was scheduled for an 8:45 am appointment at a well-known laboratory to have blood work done prior to my yearly physical. I arrived to find the door was locked. Pounding on it brought no response. No explanatory sign was in sight.
Turned out the lab was closed, and—I learned from someone who worked in the building—nobody’d been there for a week. Though the lab had my email address and phone number, I’d received no call.
Fortunately, I was able to have my blood drawn a few hours later at a branch of this lab in the next town. I asked the phlebotomist for the headquarters phone number so I could express my displeasure that no one had notified me of my cancelled appointment.
“Call the 800 number,” she said. “I guess staff got COVID again. That’s what happened there last time.”
I found that information somewhat alarming. “They don’t offer to vaccinate you?,” I asked.
“Oh, they do,” she said. “But I won’t take it.”
As she’s a Black woman, and there’s been legitimate reluctance based on our dreadful history, I didn’t pursue the matter. “I understand,” I said. And I left.
But I found the exchange deeply troubling. I wondered how much counseling this huge organization was undertaking to encourage its staff to take the vaccine.
Super-spreading phlebotomists aren’t going to help us reach herd immunity. Perhaps there was something I might have said that would have made a difference.
I came across an article in STAT titled, “A User’s Guide: How to talk to those hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine.” And it occurred to me that as more vaccine becomes available, and more of us become vaccinated, we can become ambassadors to those who are reluctant—if we know some basic approaches.
The rest of this post comes from information in the STAT article, which provided some good insights and resources. Its focus is on Black and Hispanic Americans, who–though disproportionately affected by the disease–also have high rates of wariness. Thus, many are taking a “wait and see” attitude, according to several surveys.
But much of the advice in the article may be applicable to just about anyone who isn’t dead set against being vaccinated.
Anthropologist Heidi Larson, a global vaccine expert based in London who directs The Vaccine Confidence Project, calls the target group “the movable middle.” She compares them to swing voters:
“Any political strategist will tell you that getting as much of the swing vote as you can is what’s important. It can also make people more resilient to the predatory behavior of antivax groups.”
(Kaiser Family Foundation surveys find the “movable middle” accounts for 17% of those polled. The largest group of respondents, 62%, said they’ve either been vaccinated or plan to be; 15% said absolutely not, and 7% said only if they must. I updated the figures from those that appear in the STAT article.)
In my situation with the phlebotomist, I learned that I wouldn’t have been a good emissary. The most likely to have influence are friends or family members, doctors, or clergy.
But I might have referred the woman to “The Conversation: Between Us, About Us,” a campaign co-developed by Reed Tuckson, Washington, DC’s former public health commissioner, to provide Black families with accurate vaccine information.
If the woman had been Hispanic, there’s a YouTube video (in Spanish) created by Jorge Moreno, an assistant professor at the Yale University School of Medicine and practicing internist, who describes the vaccine and his personal experience being vaccinated.
In addition, the CDC created a PDF about “las vacunas,” and the FDA provides information in 20 languages. The Hispanic community has been particularly targeted with misinformation through social media, including nonsense about implanted microchips, satanic rituals, and fertility damage.
Hispanics’ questions that must be addressed also center on whether undocumented immigrants can be inoculated (the answer is yes) and whether insurance is needed (it is not).
In response to concerns about safety, it’s important to point out that none of the vaccines contain live viruses, so it’s impossible to get COVID from them. Also, the Pfizer and Moderna trials both had Black and Hispanic participants, and the vaccines were shown to be safe to all ethnicities, stressed Moreno. Tens of thousands of people were tested before the emergency go-ahead was provided.
Some other key points the STAT author cites:
—Don’t lecture; listen to hear the person’s doubts.
—Don’t look down on the person or blame her/him for hesitating. Be compassionate instead, realizing these are new vaccines–and we’ve all gone through an anxiety-provoking, hellish year.
—Don’t get into the weeds of the science; based on your knowledge of the person, perhaps try altruism: that you’re “helping protect your family and community by getting us closer to herd immunity.”
—If concerns are based on religious opposition to the stem cells (in the J&J vaccine), it may be worth mentioning that the Vatican has termed the vaccines “morally acceptable,” and the Pope, who received the Pfizer vaccine, told Catholics it’s their moral obligation to be vaccinated.
—Use humor if you can. A group of California doctors created a YouTube video of remixes from the “Hamilton” song “I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot.” I found this video really great and strongly recommend that you take the few minutes to watch it.
–Use your personal experience. Larson spoke about Ethan Lindenberger, an Ohio teen whose story went viral when he asked on Reddit where he could get vaccinated because he’d just become 18 and no longer had to be constrained by his anti-vaxxer parents.
—Appreciate that this effort may take several tries and requires patience.
—Be available to help—signing people up for appointments, driving them to vaccination centers, etc.
—Help people envision a better future. The STAT article concludes:
“Herd immunity offers a path back to normalcy. Larson suggests asking: ‘Do you really want to stay in this mess forever?” Adds Tuckson: ‘I ask people, ‘Would you like to have Christmas and Thanksgiving in person? Do you want your daughter to graduate in person, or your son to be able to have a wedding? Would you like your life back?’”
If you, yourself, have been hesitant to receive the vaccine, has any of the above information persuaded you? If you’re among the majority who either have been or plan to be vaccinated, can you see yourself trying to win over some reluctant “movable middle” folks?
Do you see this as something that’s your responsibility? One way or another, Dr. Walensky’s concerns of a doom scenario must be taken seriously. Only then can we build toward that safer expanded vaccinated herd.