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How To Talk To Hesitant Americans About COVID-19 Vaccination


Even as coronavirus vaccines become more widely distributed, lots of Americans say they're still not sure they'll get one. According to a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, about a quarter of Americans say they remain unsure or hesitant about getting a coronavirus vaccine. So as people begin to discuss whether or not to get the vaccine with friends and loved ones, we wanted to know, how do you talk to people who are hesitant about it? These kinds of conversations can be tricky, so to help us answer some of these questions, we've called Nadine Gartner. She is the founder and executive director of Boost Oregon. That's a nonprofit parent-led organization focused on educating parents about the safety of childhood immunizations. And Nadine Gartner is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

NADINE GARTNER: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: Well, let's just start from the beginning. I just think this is a very sensitive thing to discuss with people, and I was really intrigued when I was reading about your work how some people just kind of come right out with it and just ask, like, are you getting your child vaccinated or not? And I just think that that might vary from place to place or region to region, how open people feel about having those kinds of conversations. So how do you suggest broaching a topic like this in the first place?

GARTNER: Yes. So we always tell people to start from a place of empathy. No one refuses a vaccine because they think that it will harm them or harm their community. They do it because they honestly think it's the best choice for them and their family. And so starting from the place of you want to do what's best for your health and then making that a shared goal, that as their medical provider, as their friend, as their relative, I want you to have a healthy and vibrant future as well. And so how can we both make that happen - and starting from that place of empathy and then asking questions. You want to be curious and kind about what their reasons for feeling hesitant are.

Vaccine hesitancy is not a monolith, and so people come to it for different reasons. Someone from the Black community, for instance, who knows about the history of abuses by the government and by medical institutions in the past are going to be hesitant for different reasons than someone who's coming at it from a perspective of wanting a natural lifestyle for their child. So you really have to ask questions and find out what is the source of this person's hesitancy and then move from there.

MARTIN: Can I just stop for one second and ask, are there - would you kind of start with, with whom should you raise this topic? I mean, just people on the bus or just people within your inner circle? Or how do you sort of start with that?

GARTNER: Sure. I think that the best place where you're going to make some movement and, you know, be able to have conversations that will lead to greater acceptance of vaccines will be among those who are already in your circle, whether they're friends, family, neighbors, people who may know and trust you already and feel that you have their best intentions in mind. I think that's a little more difficult when you're dealing with strangers, but it's not impossible. And you can always start from finding that common ground. You know, maybe you both have children. Maybe you both have a parent living in a long-term care facility, and starting from that common ground and then being able to share that you both want what's best for your relatives and having the conversation from that point.

MARTIN: How do you address some of the issues that people are raising, which is - the main one being that this is so new, and I'm not sure I want to risk it because it's so new and also because these vaccines were put into production in such a short period - developed and put into production in such a short period of time that some people feel like that's scary?

GARTNER: Right. And so when we hear that, we say, yes, you're correct. This is the fastest turnaround that we've had of a vaccine, you know, being produced. But it's gone exactly at the speed of the science that we have. What we say to people is that no corners have been cut. The safety measures that have been in place for previous vaccines have been exactly the same for the creation of the COVID-19 vaccines. There have been three phases of trial where the vaccine is tested on a group of individuals, and there's a control group that receives the placebo. And the data is pulled from there.

What's different this time around is because of the necessity to get a vaccine to move us past this pandemic, the government and industry have truncated the manufacturing process. So instead of waiting for the end of the Phase 3 trial and then revving up and creating the quantities that are necessary to distribute to the country, that process was already happening before the Phase 3 trial had been completed. Now, the vaccine wasn't distributed until after the trials were completed and the regulatory agencies gave their approval to distribute it. But instead of having to wait several more months to actually create the vaccine after the trial, it had already been done. And so it's able to get to people in a much faster manner. So again, safety has not been sacrificed in this process.

MARTIN: Where do these conversations tend to fall apart? What are some pitfalls to avoid?

GARTNER: I think the problems are when - if the person who is trying to explain about vaccines gets impatient or if there's any sort of judgment, it's not going to succeed. What needs to happen is a real, facilitated, joint decision and to make it a conversation where you're working together towards achieving the end goal, which is a healthy life and a healthy future for you and your family.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, how do you recommend these conversations unfold? What I think I hear you saying is this could - this generally isn't a one-and-done conversation. How would you recommend people think about how much time it takes to be persuasive when somebody isn't already on board?

GARTNER: Well, I would advise people not to have a timeframe in their mind. It will take us as long as it takes for each individual. And especially with the COVID-19 vaccine, I think - you know, generally the majority of Americans are in support of vaccines. And so people may have certain concerns about this particular vaccine. And maybe you can address and aleve (ph) their fears in a single conversation. For those who have gone down, you know, the rabbit hole about children's vaccines and are really feeling fearful and uncertain about vaccination in general, that will definitely take a series of conversations. And the truth is that people have absorbed anti-vaccine misinformation for months, perhaps even years, before they have that conversation with you. And you can't change their minds in a single conversation.

MARTIN: So be patient, like, have your facts in order, ask questions - you know, why do you feel that way? - listen, and be patient (laughter).

GARTNER: Exactly. And don't be afraid to admit when you don't know the answer to something. You know, the worst thing you can probably do is try to guess or make up something and then for that person to realize later on that you were totally wrong. And then they think, well, maybe other things that person said to me were wrong. So if you don't know something, admit it, and then refer them to credible, scientific-based sources. And show them how to do that research on their own as well so that, you know, the next time they hear an accusation about vaccines, they can figure it out and get a better hold of what's real and what's not.

MARTIN: That is Nadine Gartner, founder and executive director of Boost Oregon. That's a parent-led organization focused on educating parents about the safety of childhood immunizations. Nadine Gartner, thank you so much for being with us.

GARTNER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.