As microbiology and immunology doctoral students, we have become a resource for our families and friends on the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been the perfect impetus to stay up to date on the SARS-CoV-2 literature and a great way to work on our science communication. We felt as though we were making a difference, as we helped our loved ones understand the unfamiliar scientific jargon which soon became part of their daily lives.
These conversations were quite successful until the vaccine distribution actually started. What we saw as the flame of hope, indicating that the pandemic was finally coming to an end, raised concerns for many. People started asking us whether we’d get vaccinated once given the chance to or informed us that their excitement turned into anxiety once it became their turn to get vaccinated.
At first, we started panicking. If people in our networks were feeling this way, then certainly many others were too. How would we reach herd immunity if vaccine uptake was low? Our personal stake in wanting the pandemic to end definitely clouded our responses and didn’t necessarily lead to fruitful discussions. So as graduate students, we did what we know best: We researched how to engage in these conversations and delved into the budding science of addressing vaccine hesitancy.
We initially approached these conversations by sharing data and facts that explain why these vaccines are safe. However, consistent with the research on this topic, we realized that most people were not very receptive to this method. We found that a more successful approach is to start by asking them about their concerns and validating their emotions. When we acknowledged that it’s normal to have concerns about new technology, it opened up the doors to further discussion.
Next, we tried to find some common ground with them, a way in which we could relate to their sentiments. While keeping in mind their responses, we would share our reasons for getting vaccinated and we made sure to frame it in a way that mattered to them. For example, some of our family members expressed concerns about the potentially unknown side effects these vaccines could have. Therefore, we explained that one of the reasons we were getting vaccinated was to protect ourselves from the plethora of known long-term side effects of COVID-19. We also made the important realization that these conversations can occur over numerous calls. Since vaccine rollout is a lengthy process, there is time to let these ideas simmer for a bit instead of trying to convince someone in one phone call.
We noticed that one of the biggest issues for many vaccine-hesitant people is trust. There are a vast number of reasons why many, even people that generally trust vaccines, are not sure whether to trust the COVID-19 vaccine. For instance, due to the uniquely politically polarized nature of 2020, both of us have heard concerns about undue political influence from either side of the spectrum corrupting what would otherwise be considered a safe, thorough process of vaccine testing and approval. Another common concern we’ve encountered is regarding the speed of COVID-19 vaccine approval. Terminology such as “emergency use authorization” and “Operation Warp Speed” incorrectly gives the impression of a rushed process. In addition to these common concerns, there is a mind-boggling amount of vaccine misinformation being produced, and even reasonably reputable news sources have posted alarming anecdotes of vaccine recipients without properly contextualizing these as exceedingly rare or unrelated to the vaccine.
Fortunately for us, the process behind every approved COVID-19 vaccine has been extremely transparent and thorough. The best way to combat misinformation is with accurate information, so refer your friends and family to these resources. The CDC and FDA are especially useful as these agencies publicly post all vaccine testing data and safety assessments. Try to address concerns together — figure out what information they need to better trust the COVID-19 vaccines and research those using credible sources. For example, what did safety testing show for these vaccines? What was the approval process?
Answering these questions together can lead to both you and your vaccine-hesitant loved one being more informed and avoids the issue of the other feeling “talked down” to. For some, stories from trusted public figures and friends getting vaccinated can help increase comfort with scheduling their own vaccines. Finally, if they have any concerns about whether to vaccinate due to their own personal health issues and medications, encourage them to consult their doctor and address those concerns as soon as possible.
Building trust in COVID-19 vaccines takes time and may need multiple approaches to work but remember to stay positive, the overall goal is for you to get through this pandemic with your loved ones safely. Everybody has a role to play in ending the pandemic, and we hope these strategies we’ve derived from our own experiences can help many of you play your role in addressing vaccine hesitancy in your communities.
IFE DESAMOURS ADEYERI is a first year PhD student studying biological and biomedical sciences at the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. TIMOTHY WATKINS is a second year PhD student studying biological and biomedical sciences at the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and is in the lab of Ellen Foxman in the School of Medicine. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.