As the supply of Covid-19 vaccines ramps up, experts expect the next obstacle to achieving herd immunity will be persuading more people to actually get vaccinated. Here's how to talk to people who are hesitant to get a vaccine, according to physicians, vaccine experts, and more.
How to talk to the vaccine-hesitant
1. Aim for the 'movable middle'
Among the population of people unwilling to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, some are firmly set against getting vaccinated, while others are simply hesitant. The latter is who you should talk to, STAT News reports.
"There are some people that aren't going to change their minds no matter what," Heidi Larson, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said, "so focus more on the so-called 'movable middle.'"
2. Truly listen to their concerns
"Try to address their concerns, not what you assume are their concerns," Jorge Moreno, an internist and assistant professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, said. For instance, Moreno said he frequently heard concerns from his Latino patients regarding false rumors that Covid-19 vaccines can impair fertility, something especially concerning to Latino communities who have a history of sterilizations without consent, STAT News reports.
Similarly, Reed Tuckson, former public health commissioner for Washington, D.C., said many Black Americans distrust the medical system among because of the racism many have encountered—a distrust that Black physicians are especially suited to combat. "We can say, 'I understand you. I am from the same place as you are. I have the same anger and frustration as you do. But these are safe and effective vaccines that are critical for our survival,'" he said.
Krys Foster, a family physician at Thomas Jefferson University, added that in her experience, many vaccine-hesitant patients "are just seeking more information, or even my approval to say that it is safe to proceed given their medical history."
3. Provide people resources in their language
Moreno said when he was looking for information about Covid-19 vaccines for his Spanish-speaking patients, he couldn't find much. "I saw a lot of information online, some of it good, some of it bad, but everything was in English," he said. "I felt that was a disservice, especially for our older citizens—the ones we were supposed to be vaccinating."
That's why Moreno created a YouTube video talking about the vaccine and his personal experience with it in Spanish. And for those who need additional resources, reliable vaccine information is being made available by organizations, STAT News reports: CDC offers a PDF about vaccines in Spanish, FDA has vaccine information in over 20 languages, and the World Health Organization has Covid-19 information in six languages, STAT News reports.
4. Keep it simple
Getting lost in the scientific weeds on mRNA, spike proteins, and viral vectors will "rarely do anything, and sometimes … aggravate the situation because people feel like you are not listening to their concerns," Larson said.
Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, suggested it's possible to address some common misconceptions without diving too deep into the science. "If people think they might get Covid from the vaccines, it's because they don't understand it's not a live vaccine," she said, adding, "If people are asking about the costs, it's clear they don't understand the vaccines are free."
But instead of getting bogged down in more complicated aspects of vaccine science, it's more effective to appeal to altruism. "Some people are more willing to take the vaccine if you say, 'It's not for you, it's for your grandmother,' or 'It's for those you work with,'" Larson said.
You can also focus on the future. For instance, Tuckson said he asks 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?"
5. Talk about the vaccine's proven safety—for all populations
It's important to remind people the vaccines have been tested on tens of thousands of people from a diverse range of backgrounds, STAT News reports.
"In Pfizer and Moderna [clinical trials] combined, there were 10,000 Hispanic people tested, and the vaccines were shown to be safe in all ethnicities," Moreno said, but "[m]any of my patients didn't know this."
Another way to bolster people's sense of safety is to cite the growing millions of people who have taken the vaccine and remained healthy. In fact, polls have shown that people's hesitation about getting vaccinated has diminished as more people they know get the vaccine, STAT News reports.
Citing her experience with her own family, Boyd said, "They wanted other people to go first, but once I could share data that millions of people had taken it safely, it became easier. With every additional poll, the number of people in the 'I'm waiting to see' category gets smaller."
6. Don't shame people
According to experts, it's critical to listen to people's concerns in a nonjudgmental manner. "Looking down your nose at someone is just not going to work," Tuckson said. "Making people feel guilty and making people feel stupid about asking questions are two definite nos."
Instead, Larson said you should "take a deep breath and just hear people out. Everyone's had a rough year one way or another. People are worn down, and we need to help each other."
7. It's OK to use humor
Instead of a "dry lecture," focus on making your conversation engaging and inviting, such as by using humor to inject a little levity into an otherwise serious situation, STAT News reports.
For instance, the Black Coalition Against Covid asked comedian W. Kamau Bell to speak, and his humor created an environment where people felt comfortable asking serious questions to physicians, STAT News reports. Other physicians have taken to YouTube to spread vaccine information with Hamilton remixes.
8. Don't be afraid to talk about religion
For some patients, vaccine hesitancy stems from the use of fetal cells in early vaccine testing or, in the case of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, during development, STAT News reports.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has recommended people avoid J&J's vaccine. However, the Vatican has said the vaccines are "morally acceptable," and the Pope even received a shot on Jan. 13. "He's told Catholics it's their moral obligation to be vaccinated," Moreno said.
9. Use your testimonial
Sharing a personal experience also be a very effective way to engage your patients, experts said. Jamie Loehr, from Cayuga Family Medicine in New York, said whenever patients ask him about the vaccine, he tells them, "I not only believe in it, I got it and I recommend it to anyone who can possibly get it."
Similarly, Boyd said when people ask her how the vaccine went for her, they "get more comfortable."
10. Be patient—and offer to help
It may take a while before someone is ready to get a vaccine, which is why it's important to be patient. "I haven't been 100% successful," Moreno said. "I'm very passionate about this and I want people to get vaccinated, but I don't want to force them."
Some people who may appear hesitant may just be worried about the challenge of navigating vaccine appointments, so offer to give them help, Moreno said. "If you're young and know computers, sign them up," he said. "Give them a ride to the vaccination center" (McFarling, STAT News, 3/26; Marill, Medscape, 3/23).