Vaccine Conspiracy Theories Abound — 4 Things We Can Do About It

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
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Nearly a year after the first case of COVID-19 was identified, the first vaccines, first from Pfizer and then from Moderna, were issued emergency approval. More vaccines are on the way. They have the power to get us back to “normal” in whatever version of the word “normal” exists post-pandemic.

And I’m excited. I cannot wait until it’s my turn to get the vaccine. Seeing the healthcare workers and at-risk folks in my life get vaccinated fills me with joy, and I’m not so patiently waiting for my turn.

But not everyone in my life is as eager to get the vaccine as I am. I’ve been surprised to find a fair amount of hesitancy among some of my family and friends, some of whom are either going to hold off on taking the vaccine indefinitely and some who are choosing to shift to the very back of the vaccine line with a wait-and-see approach. I can’t understand it.

They aren’t alone either. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 25% of Americans are unsure or hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine. That number is down from a few months prior, but it’s still high enough that it could impact the ultimate goal of herd immunity.

NPR’s Michel Martin spoke with Nadine Gartner, the founder and executive director of Boost Oregon—a nonprofit focused on educating parents about the safety of childhood immunizations—who outlined advice on navigating conversations about vaccine uncertainty with the people in your circle.

Start From A Place Of Empathy

Gartner suggests first approaching any conversation about vaccine hesitancy from a place of empathy. She advises folks to “begin from the knowledge that people want to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families.” And that’s true. Whether we’re chomping at the bit to get the vaccine or worried about the vaccine, we’re all coming from a place of wanting to do the best thing for ourselves and our family.

Likewise, Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a board certified adult psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, suggests actively listening to those people in your life who have different beliefs about the vaccine. Approach the conversations with openness and identify shared beliefs, which can foster “unity and healthy discussion about the benefits of a vaccine,” she said.

Identify The Source Of Vaccine Hesitancy

Different folks have different reasons for being nervous. In an article addressing vaccine hesitancy for the Mayo Clinic, the authors note that hesitancy results from a number of factors, including concerns about the vaccine itself–its safety, effectiveness, and how long protection lasts–concerns about political factors that might have contributed to the vaccine’s approval, and concerns specific to particular demographics.

The Black community, for example, who is aware of “the history of abuses by the government and by medical institutions in the past,” is going to be hesitant about the vaccine for a different reason than someone who is perhaps highly focused on a natural lifestyle for themselves or their children, says Gartner.

One of the most common issues raised is with respect to how quickly the vaccine was developed. Gartner’s approach is to validate this concern—yes, this is the fastest turnaround of a vaccine that we’ve seen—but then to focus on the fact that it has gone exactly at the speed of the science we have, that “no corners have been cut.” She notes that it’s important to highlight that the safety measures in place for previous vaccines were in place here, as well.

This message was stressed by Dr. Scott Braunstein, medical director of Sollis Health in Los Angeles, in an interview with Healthline, who noted that, “In fact, what was cut out of the equation was mostly red tape, and what was added was technology and funding. The vaccines went through all three testing phases, including over 37,000 people in Phase 3.” He added that “the process is tried and true.”

Once the source of the hesitancy is identified, a more productive conversation will be possible.

Consider Your Audience When Raising This Topic

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Gartner notes that the place where “you will make movement and have conversations that lead to greater acceptance of vaccination will be with people in your circle.” Speaking with your friends, family, and neighbors, those who know and trust you, who know you have their best intentions in mind, will be more productive conversations.

However, it’s not impossible to also have a vaccine conversation with a stranger. In these cases, Gartner suggests starting with common ground—parents who are in long term care, for example. Then, again, return to that place of empathy and focus on the shared desire to do what’s best for your loved ones.

Lead With Compassion

Patience and compassion during conversations about the vaccine are essential. The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization, spoke with social and behavioral psychologists, medical anthropologists, behavioral economists, neuroscientists, and political communications scholars around topics related to vaccine hesitancy. One of the eight principles they identified was with respect to emotions. They wrote, “Fear immobilizes people, and shame is likely to achieve the wrong reaction. Look to more constructive emotions like awe, hope and parental love to get people to act.”

We know that most people don’t change their mind because they are made to feel stupid or because they felt judged. As a result of this, Gartner suggests remaining engaged throughout the conversation, being present, listening, and making sure the other person feels heard. Chances are that you will need more than one conversation to change someone’s mind about the vaccine, particularly if they’ve absorbed vaccine misinformation for a period of time.

“Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer to something,” Gartner notes. Guessing or making up information will ultimately destroy your credibility and undo anything the conversation might have otherwise accomplished. Along with this, encourage those in your circle to seek out their own answers. Braunstein suggests encouraging friends and family to do their research on websites like the CDC or WHO.

To me, vaccines feel like the shining light at the end of our dark road. To some of my friends and family, vaccines feel like a dangerous risk. But the truth is that we all have the same endgame—to keep ourselves, our family, and our community safe. No one is making a choice that they think will hurt them or their family. With that in mind, it’s easier to find the grace and patience to have these conversations, rather than to dismiss their concerns outright. And I suspect, with that grace and patience, the conversations will go better than they might otherwise have gone.

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