How to talk to vaccine-hesitant friends: experts offer tips on addressing concerns
By Melissa Couto Zuber
Anger and frustration can take over when people hear rumblings of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy coming from their friends and relatives.
But experts say to keep those tempers in check when engaging in what may turn into exasperating conversations. Those uncertain about the jab are less likely to be convinced to get one if they’re shouted at or spoken to in a condescending tone.
Heather Bastedo, a persuasion and motivation researcher, says fending off vaccine hesitancy is important, with parts of Canada seeing record highs in daily COVID cases.
And as we reach the peak of a third wave, frustration can boil over in some peoples’ reactions to their vaccine-hesitant peers.
“Everybody is so emotional right now,” said Bastedo, who’s also the president at Public Square Research in Toronto.
“There’s this urgency — we want this to be fixed, we’re scared — so we’re coming out with guns blazing … but if people feel attacked, they won’t engage.”
Bastedo says it’s better to “take a step back” in those situations, and try to understand what’s driving the skepticism.
Reasons for vaccine hesitancy may include impressions the shots were made and approved too quickly, or worries about the mRNA used by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, says Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease expert with McMaster University.
In such cases, Chagla says he tries to explain that mRNA technology has been around for decades before it was tailored for the COVID vaccine; that the combined global effort allowed for quicker analysis of safety and efficacy; and that governing bodies could see data as it came in, rather than waiting for the end of the trials.
But when hesitancy is rooted in “firm and fixed beliefs” that come from false anecdotes — the “it happened to a friend of a friend” type of story — it’s harder to combat, Chagla notes.
Keep it positive
Still, one method is to emphasize the personal impact and positives that will come as more people are vaccinated.
“You have to try to talk about it from a global collective experience,” he said. “Sometimes it’s helpful to say … grandparents can hug their grandkids (when everyone is vaccinated) and I think people start getting it.”
Dr. Chandlee Dickey, chair of the psychiatry department at Western University, says guilting people into getting a vaccine or threatening them with ultimatums if they don’t, are other not-to-do’s when discussing hesitancy with loved ones.
She says those negative reactions are likely to build up resistance rather than start meaningful discussions that could sway people to get the vaccine.
“I think it’s better to appeal to someone’s sense of altruism,” Dickey said. “If they’re not personally worried about COVID, they probably know someone who is. And you can say ‘by getting vaccinated, you’re protecting them.”’
But whose responsibility is it to address hesitancy? Do we need to say something when we hear vaccine concerns or see them on social media, or should we leave it up to public health professionals?
Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Toronto’s Sinai Health, says family doctors can be valuable resources for battling vaccine hesitancy.
He says one criticism of provincial vaccine rollouts is how primary care physicians — who are usually a person’s most trusted medical authority — have been essentially left out of the process.
Stall encourages people to reach out to their doctors with vaccine questions. But, he adds, those without medical degrees can still help limit hesitancy by reminding people that vaccines are “our way out of this pandemic.”
“Everyone has been suffering for so long,” he said. “And the faster we vaccinate … the faster everything gets back to normal.”
If accessing information on the rollout is concern, make it easier for others to get vaccinated by scheduling appointments for them, Stall suggests.
Bastedo says we all have some responsibility to combat hesitancy as vaccination ramps up across the country.
But social media adds a complicating layer to the hesitancy discourse, where tone is lost and any comment can be taken the wrong way.
She says we should still try to talk to friends when we see them post hesitant messages on Facebook by messaging the poster directly — or getting them on the phone — rather than commenting publicly.
“The medium itself is not friendly,” she said. “And right now peoples’ backs are up. The level of snark is palpable.”
Governments and public officials also have a role to play in promoting vaccine confidence, Bastedo says, but it can be hard for some to trust elected officials.
She says community leaders are often more respected than those higher up the political ladder, and representation in messaging — who’s trying to persuade whom to get the vaccine — also matters.
Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, a critical care and palliative physician in Ottawa, recognized that early on, posting a photo of himself getting the vaccine on Twitter three months ago so racialized communities could see someone who looked like them getting the jab.
Kyeremanteng said in a recent interview the best way to address others’ concerns is to listen to their reasons for being tentative.
He noted how Black men were deliberately injected with syphilis in the Tuskegee experiments in Alabama from 1932 to 1972, and how Indigenous populations in certain cities had to use segregated hospitals late into the 20th century.
“When it comes to hesitancy, you’ve got to come from a place of empathy and compassion, realizing there’s a reason why some people are distrustful,” Kyeremanteng said. “And the answer is not shaming.
“It’s patience, it’s education, it’s being open to answer questions and address concerns.”