Asked and Answered: How Can I Talk with People Who Are Reluctant to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?
You asked. Alex Benjamin, MD, Chief, Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology with LVHN, answers.
BY PETE LEFFLER
Over the last several months, our region (along with the nation) has transitioned from demand for COVID-19 vaccines outpacing supply, to now having fewer people requesting the shot. We spoke with Alex Benjamin, MD, Lehigh Valley Health Network’s (LVHN) Chief of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, to talk about what this means, and to get tips for talking with someone who is reluctant to get vaccinated. A key tip: Share personal experiences.
Q: What’s your level of concern with “vaccine hesitancy” and vaccine supply outpacing demand?
A: If you decide today, ‘I want a vaccine,’ it’s there for you. Gone is the priority tiered system, when the concern was ‘jumping the line.’ Having opened all that up a couple of weeks ago, we’re seeing the opposite. We have lots of vaccine, and many people are signing up.
Locally, so far, we’re seeing only a slight increase in unfilled appointments.
There always will be people who say, ‘Definitely not, I’m not getting this vaccine.’ Maybe they think ‘I’m not going to get [the virus]’ or, ‘If I do, it won’t be that bad.’ You may not be able to influence this group. However, you can share your experiences with people you know who have been affected. And remind them that Pennsylvania still averages 2,600 new COVID cases each day, most often in patients age 20 to 60. Young patients may avoid the ER, but experience brain fog, loss of taste or smell and stubborn respiratory problems. Apart from serious illness, COVID proves fatal for two of every 100 state residents who get it.
Other reluctant people may give various reasons like – ‘others are waiting,’ or ‘for me right now the timing is bad’ – there’s always a reason. I think those are people we can persuade to get vaccinated.
Now we can make the argument there’s enough safety data out there from those who have gotten vaccinated; that at most you might have a fever and chills for a bit after the shots; that data shows the vaccines are keeping people out of the hospital.
One thing I tell people is: If you get sick and you come to the hospital, we can treat you but the therapies are not 90% or 95% effective like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And as far as vaccine side effects: Let me tell you, the side effects of getting COVID can be so much more serious and have long-lasting impacts to your health.
Q: The widely used Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA to “teach” our own cells to be on alert for any COVID-19 infection. Help me explain that to somebody reluctant to embrace the concept.
A: The analogy I use is mRNA is like a 3D printer for the cell. The vaccine teaches our cells to produce a spike protein that triggers an immune response, creating antibodies that recognize and target any COVID cells for destruction.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are the first to use mRNA, but mRNA sciences have been in development for decades. Because of the pandemic, a vaccine development process that used to be very linear – Phase 1, then a time gap; Phase 2, another gap; Phase 3, studies and trials, etc. – became more simultaneous.
All those gaps disappeared. And the bureaucratic process between a Phase 3 result and getting licensing also was removed. Vaccine developers just needed two months of data to get federal approval. You’ve got a pandemic, and there was plenty of infection, so you had plenty of people to test. The studies will continue for two years; Phase 3 is ongoing for Pfizer and Moderna.
Q: What should I tell someone concerned about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was halted briefly by reports of rare but serious side effects? Would you recommend any segment of the unvaccinated population avoid a J&J vaccine?
A: It’s a rare event. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did what they were supposed to do: studied the issue and found the J&J vaccine safe. If Johnson & Johnson is the only vaccine available to you, get it because the benefits outweigh the risks.
Q: What suggestions do you have for engaging people who are reluctant or afraid to be vaccinated?
A: Meet people where they are: Find out how much they know, what information or misinformation they might have heard, etc. Ask them if they know somebody who got COVID. If they did and it was mild, you can understand why they are in no hurry to get vaccinated. Personal experiences make people perceive risk differently.
Sometimes they want to hear personal stories rather than science and ‘information.’ Sometimes information backfires: It makes people feel, ‘What do you mean my information sources are bad?’ and they just shut down. Sometimes they want to hear: ‘Grandma got the vaccine, and she’s OK, she’s doing great.’ Personal stories work.
And overall, you must be patient: Keep asking; keep talking. Being persistent shows people you care about them and their health.
Q: Where do we go from here?
A: Ironically, as things improve, we are getting back together over the dinner table, and so I encourage people to have those conversations there. Find out who’s vaccinated and who’s not. Use the opportunity to discuss, at a personal level, ways to get people to overcome their reluctance and get the shots.
How to get a COVID-19 vaccination
LVHN offers many ways to get the COVID-19 vaccination. Visit LVHN.org/appointments to immediately schedule at one of our regional locations. You also can walk in and get a COVID vaccination without an appointment at any of our COVID-19 Vaccination Clinics: