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How to talk about vaccines with the unvaccinated

As the prospect of sharing a holiday dinner table draws nearer, MinnPost talked to medical professionals about how to talk to people who have yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19 about getting vaccinated.

Experts overwhelmingly agree, the best way to stop the virus is vaccination.
Experts overwhelmingly agree, the best way to stop the virus is vaccination.
REUTERS/Yuki Iwamura

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but we’ll just say it: summer is almost over. Soon it will be getting colder in Minnesota, and that means more gathering with people inside, with big holidays on the way.

For many this year, these events will come with an unpleasant twist: the prospect of social friction between people who are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus and those who are not, especially in light of the rapidly spreading delta variant.

Experts overwhelmingly agree, the best way to stop the virus is vaccination.  Three COVID-19 vaccines have been declared safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. Yet nine months into the vaccination effort, just 65 percent of Minnesotans age 12 and older — those eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 — have been fully vaccinated against the virus.

As the prospect of sharing a holiday dinner table draws nearer, MinnPost talked to medical professionals about how to talk to people who have yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19 about getting vaccinated — and when to maybe not go there at all.

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Check the judgment and share information

It’s easy to get frustrated with someone who doesn’t share your point of view when it comes to COVID-19 vaccination. But posting on Facebook that everyone who isn’t vaccinated is an idiot is unlikely to convince anyone to get the shots. Neither is telling someone they’re stupid because they don’t want to get vaccinated.

Instead, try listening and making an effort to understand the concerns of the unvaccinated person you’re talking to, said Dr. Roli Dwivedi, a chief clinical officer at the University of Minnesota’s Community-University Health Care Center.

She recalled a patient of hers — a woman who was at high-risk of COVID-19 complications because she was immunocompromised and had chronic health conditions, who wasn’t ready to get the vaccine.

Talking to her, Dwivedi learned that she had discomfort due to symptoms of underlying medical conditions, making the vaccine a lower priority.  “She wanted them to be addressed before she even thinks about the prevention,” Dwivedi said.

Whenever the patient came in for appointments, Dwivedi asked if she was willing to talk about the vaccine. If she said yes, Dwivedi asked if she had any questions about it.

She finds many patients have questions about the speed with which the vaccines became available (they went through the same process any other approved drug goes through, and at this point, have been tested in millions and millions of people). She also emphasizes the number of people who have died from COVID-19 — currently 4.4 million — compared to a very minuscule number of deaths potentially tied to vaccination.

As far as empathy goes, Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, of the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, said she tries to reflect the words of the person she’s talking to back to them, using phrases like “let me be sure I’m hearing what you’re saying,” before restating their view, without necessarily endorsing it.

Kelly Robinson founded the Minnesota chapter of Black Nurses Rock, a professional organization for Black nurses that has been holding clinics to try to get people vaccinated against COVID-19.

She said when she’s talking to people at vaccine clinics, she often starts by talking about her own vaccination experience, emphasizing that if you do have symptoms of illness following the vaccine, it’s not because you’re sick, it’s because your immune system is working.

“[I] tell people that I’ve been vaccinated — I’m not going to ask anything of you that I haven’t done,” she said.

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Every person is different

Another important thing to remember when you’re talking to someone about getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is that every person who isn’t vaccinated is different, Dwivedi said, based on culture, beliefs, family values — or just being on their own timeline.

Another of Dwivedi’s patients was a man who had been staying home, wearing masks, washing his hands and social distancing, but had yet to get the vaccine.

She told him all those things are good, but the delta variant made vaccination all the more important.

He said he knew, and that he would be ready to be vaccinated in September.

“I’m very curious, why September and not now,” she said. In reply, he said, “‘Well, I know we are planning for my family to come and visit me and I want them to not be sick, so that will be the reason for me to get the vaccine,’” she said.

Family mandates

For others, more of a matter of being asked. Looking toward the holidays, Wurtz said what she calls “family mandates” can be effective in some of these cases. It was with one of her own family members, a great aunt, who she recently learned didn’t have Thanksgiving plans — and wasn’t vaccinated.

“I said, ‘You know I’d love to have you come over for dinner but you need to get started on your vaccination now,’’’ Wurtz said. Her aunt agreed to get vaccinated, but needed to know where to get a shot.

Wurtz heard from a friend who attended a bachelor party. The groom required everyone attending to be vaccinated. One guy who wasn’t vaccinated got it done so he could participate.

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You’re not going to convince everyone

Wurtz said some people may be convinced to get vaccinated and others won’t. Some people’s beliefs are deeply tied to misinformation, and they may be difficult to reason with.

“There is a lot of misinformation, but there’s some people who willfully or very diligently and doggedly stick to their perception and their understanding of the facts,” she said. “We’ve all heard the misinformation — stories about infertility or miscarriage or that [the vaccine] will change my DNA or things like that. And you can only go so far with those people in terms of trying to help them understand the facts.”

For more information on talking about vaccines, here’s a World Health Organization guide.